President Barack Obama played host to last year's top NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers on Tuesday with an event at the White House honouring the new series champion, Tony Stewart.

Stewart was joined on the White House lawn by Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch. The president of NASCAR, Brian French, also attended.

"This was Tony's year," said Obama in his prepared speech. "Smoke gave us one of the most dramatic finishes we have ever seen. After barely making the Chase, Tony took off, winning an amazing four races in the post-season. Then came the final race in Miami, a must-win. Tony went all out.

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"Tony himself acknowledged he didn't see it coming; nobody saw it coming," continued the President. "Tony predicted he wouldn't be able to pull it off.
In fact, he said if he did end up winning the championship - and this is a quote - 'I'll declare I'm a total bumbling idiot.' Here's your chance, Tony!"

Obama also picked out the driver who lost out to Stewart for the championship despite tying in points in that final race.

"I want to make special mention out of this group of Carl Edwards. He's also a member of my Fitness Council. Carl battled Tony down to the wire and came about as close as you can get without actually winning," he said. "I think everybody who saw Carl after the race, it was a great lesson in how you handle disappointment with grace and with class. He's an outstanding representative for NASCAR."

President Obama clearly has a taste for NASCAR, with this being the second time in a little over seven months that he's had NASCAR drivers over for an event. Last September it had been to honour the previous year's champion Jimmie Johnson, and Obama wasn't passing him over for appreciation this year either.

"I do want to acknowledge Jimmie, because even though his five-year streak is over, I think we can all acknowledge he is one of the all-time greats, and I know he is itching to take the title back," said Obama. "A few years ago, Jimmie Johnson showed up, showed me how to start one of these things up, showed me how everything worked. It was impressive!"

It was clear that the chief executive was itching to get into the #14 parked on the White House driveway and make use of some of Johnson's tips. "Every year, I try to take a lap. Nobody lets me do it," he joked. "But I am still holding out hope that at some point, I'm going to be able to get behind the wheel."

"I was worried about [that] when he went over to it and was looking," said Stewart in turn. "That's why I never took the window net down!" he joked, adding that he feared that the Secret Service would rush out at the first sign of the president even contemplating sliding in through the driver's window. "He mentioned how nice a job we did at not tearing the lawn up," Stewart continued. "I don't think it would remain that way if he was driving the car. But, it's your yard, so ...."

Now established as the number two most watched sport in the US behind only NFL Football, NASCAR is becoming increasingly attractive to political campaigners in election year in their efforts to reach out to the electorate. Already, former Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum boosted his campaign for his party's nomination by sponsoring the #26 car of Tony Raines in the Daytona 500 in February.

"NASCAR and the Daytona 500 are about as American as you can get, and it's great to have my campaign represented by one of these incredible machines," said Santorum at the time.

Santorum's rival Mitt Romney - the man now most likely to lead the Republican bid to oust Obama come the November elections - also attended the race itself, although he failed to use the opportunity to polish his 'everyman' credentials when he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he didn't follow NASCAR "as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."

The event to honour the 2010 Chase drivers in September last year stirred some controversy when four of the drivers invited - Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick - had to decline due to pre-existing sponsor obligations.

At the time, the four drivers were accused of boycotting the event on political grounds, of being disrespectful to the office of the presidency and even of being unpatriotic, which Biffle had angrily dismissed saying that he was "disgusted" with such suggestions. Biffle was not at the White House this week, having finished outside the top 12 last season, but Edwards, Harvick and Stewart himself all made up for their enforced absences last autumn.

NASCAR's long standing and deep-rooted association with the US armed forces also gave special resonance to the White House event this week.

"One thing I especially want to thank NASCAR for is the support you've provided for our men and women in uniform," President Obama said on Tuesday. "You look out for military families, you look out for Gold Star families, you make regular visits to Walter Reed to raise spirits there. For you guys to give that much back to folks who have given so much to us as a country to protect us and keep us safe is remarkable. So I want to thank you all for what you do on behalf of our troops."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - whose #88 car carries National Guard sponsorship - said that it had been an honour to be able to be at the event.

"I was just glad to have the opportunity to shake his hand and have my picture made," he said. "I've got a picture from last year hanging on my wall at the house, so it's something that means a lot to me and I'm appreciative to be here, to have the opportunity to do."