The news arrived at the bottom of a press release touting NASCAR's impending audience with President Barack Obama. Within hours, the story of who wouldn't be visiting the White House far outshone the story of those who would.
Jimmie Johnson and other members of the 2010 Chase for the Cup will be visiting the White House on Wednesday afternoon. However, the release indicated that five drivers — Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart — will not be attending due to what the press release called "schedule conflicts." (Kurt Busch later indicated that he never had any intention of missing the event; it's not certain how his name ended up on the initial release.)
Naturally, since this involves the White House, the issue instantly turned political: were the drivers making a statement on Obama by not attending? What could possibly be more important than a meeting with the president? Do they have legitimate scheduling conflicts? Before any of the drivers spoke on the record about the issue, speculation ran wild among both NASCAR fandom and other drivers, and the politics threatened to drown any rational discussion of the matter.
"IMO... regardless of political views, when POTUS sends an invite and wants to honor you at the White House, you accept. #respect," Jimmie Johnson wrote on Twitter.
Jeff Burton added his own tweet on the matter: "The presidency deserves respect and we are all Americans. I will be there!"
Johnson clarified later, and Burton retweeted the comment, that his response was not aimed at his fellow drivers, but at fans critical of him accepting the invitation. The political element of this — much of NASCAR's fan base leans in the opposite direction to the current occupant of the White House — obviously runs deep enough to carve divisions between drivers and their fans.
Other drivers have missed the event in the past — Kyle Busch in 2010, for instance — but the sheer number of drivers skipping this event has made it newsworthy. Each of the drivers addressed the issue on Friday afternoon, and each clarified his own position in different ways.
Kevin Harvick: "This time of year, there's a lot going on and most everything that we do is scheduled months in advance. I've been to the White House before, and it's an honor just to go the White House and be in the Oval Office. … I understand the honor and things, just with everything we have going right now, there's just no way possible to reschedule the things we got going next week." He declined to be more specific, saying that it's not public business.
Greg Biffle: Committed to a major 3M sponsor event in Minnesota, Biffle tried to adjust his schedule but could not: "I called [3M] and talked to them about the invitation, and this was very important to them. The function is designed around me and they really can't have it if I can't go. Unfortunately, the date conflicts with the invitation." Biffle noted that there is no political component to his decision; he has a photo of himself shaking hands with Obama hanging in his home, and he said he's "disgusted" by people who suggest that he "rejected" the invitation.
Kurt Busch: "I will be at the White House ... Who would turn down the opportunity?" Busch indicated that he had to adjust his 2012 photo shoot to accommodate the visit, and was not certain how his name was included on the initial press release.
Carl Edwards: Declined public comment on the issue, telling Yahoo! Sports through a spokesman that he had personal commitments. However, Edwards' bona fides with the Obama administration are not in doubt, as he's a member of the President's Council on Fitness.
Tony Stewart: "We have an obligation we have to fulfill. I've enjoyed every trip I've that I've been invited ... There's a lot of people who would like the opportunity. If I could have rescheduled, I would be there in a heartbeat." He didn't specify the obligation.
"I don't think it's fair to the guys who said they could go, or the guys who said they couldn't go, to make it political," Burton said late Friday. "If the president of the United states invited NASCAR to the White House to honor NASCAR , that is an honor whether you agree with policy or not ... you can have respect for the presidency and still disagree with it. Ten years ago, after 9/11, this country was unified, this country was together. Today, we're talking why somebody is or isn't going to the White House. And we wonder why the country's in trouble. We're blaming the people in Washington. Maybe we need to look in the damn mirror."
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