Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all declined the White House invitation for next Wednesday, each citing scheduling conflicts.
A nice way of saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Politics aside (and no one questions that NASCAR is a conservative sport), the move sends a strong signal that these drivers would rather not be seen with a president that has such a low approval rating on the economy.
Also, unlike athletes from other sports, NASCAR drivers themselves are private-sector employers. Tony Stewart, who sits precariously in the 10th spot in points in this year's Chase, owns his own team as well as that of Ryan Newman. Not only does he have employees to pay, sponsors to woo and overhead to cover, Stewart has just made a substantial investment in bringing Danica Patrick to NASCAR full time.
The other drivers also run businesses, including merchandising and licensing operations that have payrolls and other expenses. These are not guys who show up on Sunday, drive for three hours and cash big paychecks. They are businessmen who know that their livelihood depends on a thriving U.S. economy.
They are also mindful of perception, especially in a climate where sponsor dollars are becoming harder to find. Posing with a president who some might perceive as being hostile to business while the country continues to suffer high unemployment might turn off some conservative NASCAR fans as well as the businessmen the sport needs.
Of course the president is the president, and going to the White House for a personal audience with the leader of the free world is a great honor, no matter who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office.
The drivers did not elaborate on their decisions while preparing for qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it is worth noting that the other members of the 2010 Chase — champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton (who has expressed an interest in entering politics after his racing career is over) — have all committed to the event.