- Associated Press - Friday, September 2, 2011

HAMPTON, GA. (AP) - NASCAR star Tony Stewart scoffed at the notion he turned down an invitation from the White House as some sort of political statement.

Stewart is among four Sprint Cup drivers who say they can’t attend next week’s meeting with President Obama because of scheduling conflicts. Eight others who made last year’s Cup playoff, including five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, plan to be there along with NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France.

“Trust me, if we could be there, we’d definitely be there,” Stewart said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I’ve always viewed it as an honor just to get an invitation to go. I’ve enjoyed every trip every time I’ve gone there. I’ve learned more and more about it. And it’s pretty cool feeling to be with most powerful man in the world. That’s not an invitation we take lightly.”

When word got out that Stewart, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards wouldn’t be going to the White House next Wednesday, it sparked plenty of chatter on talk shows and social media networks. There was speculation the four were making some sort of protest about Obama’s policies on behalf of a generally conservative sport.

Nonsense, insisted Biffle, who said he has to go to a two-day retreat in Minnesota for 3M, the major sponsor of his No. 16 car. The event has been scheduled for months and will be attended by people from around the world.

“I saw some comments that we rejected the invitation,” Biffle said. “To me, that’s not what we did. Rejecting means no, I don’t want to go, I’m not going to go, you can’t make me go. That’s rejecting. Having a conflict and not being able to participate is something different.”

Biffle and Stewart pointed out they’ve been to the White House several times, meeting both former President George W. Bush and Obama, who was inaugurated in 2009.

“I’ve been there since he’s been in office,” Biffle said. “I’ve got a handshake picture with the president and I in the bookcase in my office, right behind my desk.”

Stewart wouldn’t reveal his conflicting plans _ “I’m not going to put anybody under the bus by talking about it” _ but insisted it was a commitment he couldn’t break or change. Otherwise, he would have been at the White House.

“Every time I go, I learn more about each room,” Stewart said. “If you get the chance, you should go. It’s really worth it.”

Jeff Burton is among the drivers who will be meeting with the Democratic president, even though he’s thought to harbor future political ambitions as a Republican.

This isn’t about politics, Burton said.

“I worked really hard to free up my schedule when I got the invitation because, to me, it’s important for the president of the United States to invite NASCAR to come so he can honor us,” he said. “I mean, that’s really what this is. A lot of people have turned this around like we’re going to honor the president. The president asked us to come to honor us. That’s a hell off a compliment for our sport and us as individual drivers and teams.”

Harvick said it’s a tough time of year to find some spare time in his already crowded schedule. The Washington visit was scheduled three days before the race at Richmond, Va., that will set the 12-driver field competing for the Sprint Cup championship.

“Most everything we do is scheduled months in advance,” Harvick said. “I have been to the White House before and it’s an honor just to go the White House and be in the Oval Office and on the premises at the White House. I understand the honor. Just with everything we have going on right now, there is no way to reschedule the things we have going next week.”

Such as?

“I don’t think that is anyone’s business,” Harvick said. “It is just a bad week for us.”

Some media outlets reported that Kurt Busch wouldn’t be going to the White House, either. Not so. His team rescheduled an important photo shoot for next year’s merchandise and marketing campaigns, a session that must be done by the end of the month to get everything ready before the team heads to Daytona for the start of the 2012 season.

“All along, it was my intention to go,” Busch said. “Who’s going to turn down an opportunity to go to the White House? For me, it’s an honor and a privilege. I have met both Bush and Obama. To be a Chase driver and go to the White House, that’s an important visit. You might not make the Chase every year and miss out on those opportunities.”

Burton said all the debate about NASCAR’s visit to the White House symbolizes a larger divide within the country.

“Ten years ago, after 9-11, this country was unified. This country was together,” he said. “Today, we’re sitting here talking as if someone, for political reasons, is going or not going to the White House. And we wonder why this country is in trouble. We can point the finger and blame all the people in Washington. Well, maybe we need to look in the damn mirror a little bit. Really. It’s our country.”


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