Rick's Racer

NASCAR Daytona 500 Auto Racing
Driver Tony Raines drives his car, sponsored by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, out to the track during practice for Sunday's Daytona 500 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

No matter what you might think of Rick Santorum and his race for president, his decision to sponsor a car in tonight's NASCAR Daytona 500 is a stroke of political genius.

(The race -- for the first time in its 54-year history -- was delayed yesterday by rain and is set to start at 7 p.m. tonight, weather permitting.)

Think about this. On the day before a critical primary in Michigan, home of the American auto industry, Santorum has a Ford race car with his name on it running in what's called the "Great American Race."

I gotta think Michigan, home of Ford, is packed with NASCAR fans. And Santorum's sponsorship draws a clear contrast to Mitt Romney, both in Romney's home state of Michigan and with NASCAR followers across the nation.

For example, while Santorum's car #26 is competing in the race, UAW workers are sponsoring a banner to be flown over the Daytona race grounds in an airplane: "Mitt Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," a reminder of Mitt's 2008 New York Times op-ed piece arguing against a federal bail-out of the nation's auto industry.

Nevermind that Santorum also opposed the auto bailout. The timing of the Daytona 500, the first NASCAR race of the season, couldn't be better for Rick.

Mitt visited the track yesterday (when there was no race) but that's an effort far short of Rick having a car in the contest.

Where's Mitt's car? His father was an auto industry guy. Mitt has far more money and needs all the help he can get in his home state. One wonders where the thinkers are inside the Romney campaign.

Santorum had some fun with the issue yesterday, offering advice to his car's veteran driver Tony Raines:

"When you're starting way back in the pack, just hang back there for a while," Santorum said, a reference to his own recent surge in the Republican race. "Let all the other cars in front of you wreck. And then run hard in the last few laps and win the race."

There is, of course, the risk that Rick's car crashes and burns. But his sponsorship and the attention it brings him with a core voting bloc has potential benefits that far outweigh the risk.

Win or lose in Michigan or Daytona, this is an example of very smart politics.