DAYTONA, FL – Some 200,000 NASCAR fans looked up with a mixture of amazement, surprise and yawns as Air Force One swooped low over Daytona International Speedway Sunday, circling for a few ceremonial passes before landing at the airport behind the race track.

“Must be an election year,” muttered 29-year-old Kevin Henderson of Charlotte, NC.

Yes, it is an election year and George W. Bush is in trouble, so he dropped in on the Daytona 500, tying up air traffic in and around Florida for most of Sunday afternoon, claiming his “experience” flying fighters with the Texas Air National Guard qualified him as a speed freak but declined an offer in a NASCAR race car because “the (Secret Service) agents wouldn’t let me.”

George W. Bush, the photo op President, on the campaign trail, seeking the support of 75 million NASCAR fans.

Time was, a Republican President seeking re-election could consider the NASCAR vote a given. Bush’s visit to Daytona came 20 years after Ronald Reagan came to Daytona to cheer Richard Petty’s 200th and final victory.

Reagan stayed until the end of the Firecracker 400 race on a July 4th weekend. Not Bush, Air Force One was back in the air long before Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off Tony Stewart to win his first Daytona 500.

Too bad. Congratulating “Little E” in Victory Lane would have been the best photo op of all. But Dubya was back in Washington when the checker fell. He showed up before the race, delayed the start of the race while he glad-handed and posed for pictures and then delivered the traditional “Gentleman, Start Your Engines” in a monotone that left many on pit road shaking their heads.

Twenty years ago, NASCAR fans welcomed Reagan to Dayona with a standing ovation that lasted nearly 20 minutes. On Sunday, more than a few boos mixed in with the lukewarm reception from fans. Yeah, so we have a President here in Daytona. Big deal. Ronald Reagan was here. We knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a friend of ours. Mr. Bush, you’re no Ronald Reagan.

Outside the stadium, Republicans set up a trailer to sign up volunteers. Driver Rusty Wallace helped out, saying he had never “seen a Democrat candidate at a race.”

Wallace must have been sleeping when Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner campaigned at NASCAR races in both Richmond and Martinsville when he won the Statehouse.

The tracks also invited Warner’s GOP opponent, Mark Earley but he said no. “We’ve already got the redneck vote,” Earley’s campaign consultant said.

Turns out he didn’t. Earley lost the election because he lost votes among the GOP base, which included hunters, cops and NASCAR fans.

But Bush is in trouble and he needs the race fan – called “NASCAR dads” by political strategists. In a tight race, NASCAR dads could make the difference and both Republicans and Democrats will be courting those who follow stock racing.

Most NASCAR dads voted Republican in 2000 but NASCAR dads are also conservative and many conservatives ain’t too happy right now with Dubya and the Republican party. Polls show many conservatives, including NASCAR dads, may stay home on Election Day or look for someone to vote for in a protest over what they see as Republican abandonment of long-standing GOP policies like balanced budgets and less government.

Sandra Ralston, a NASCAR fan from Georgia, says Bush coming to Daytona doesn’t impress her.

“He can impress me by putting Americans back to work and bringing our soldiers home from Iraq,” she says. “If he wants to convince me he cares about NASCAR, let him come to a race when it’s not an election year.”

NASCAR fans aren’t dumb. They know a photo op President when they see one.