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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney visited the Daytona 500 auto race on Sunday to greet NASCAR fans but couldn't escape the presence of his rival Rick Santorum.
Just as Romney strolled out onto the track for photo opportunities and handshakes at the traditional season-opener, the No. 26 car, emblazoned with "Santorum 2012" moved slowly past him into the pit lane.
Former Pennsylvania senator Santorum is sponsoring the Front Row Motorsports Ford driven by Tony Raines in Sunday's race.
Romney, taking a break from the high octane primary contest in Michigan, was asked about Santorum's sponsorship move and the lack of a Romney car when he was interviewed on Sirius XM's NASCAR radio station.
"Well, I came to watch the race and not to advertise so I'm looking forward to seeing some of the race and to see a lot of the spectators here and shake a lot of hands. This is kind of a fun thing for me to do," he said.
Romney, who was given a warm reception by many fans, made a brief address to spectators before the scheduled start of the race. But heavy rain hampered his visit with NASCAR personalities in the pit-lane and he left without seeing any action to return to a campaign event in Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
The long-standing frontrunner for the Republican nomination had earlier spoken at the official drivers' meeting of what is known as the Great American Race.
"This combines a couple of things I like best - cars and sport and I appreciate the spirit of the men and women who are driving today.
Santorum talked about his car on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday and said he had recommended the driver adopt a strategy that echoed his own path through the Republican presidential nomination fight so far.
"I recommended he stay back in the pack, you know, hang back there until the right time, and then bolt to the front when it really counts," Santorum said. "So let's watch. I'm hoping that for the first, you know, maybe 300, 400 miles, he's sitting way, way back, letting all the other folks crash and burn, and then sneak up at the end and win this thing."
NASCAR traditionally attracts a blue-collar fan base from the southern states and "NASCAR dads" have been considered a key voting segment similar to "soccer moms."
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman