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Palin plays politician around Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Sarah Palin took a break from the snow and played politician on stock car racing's biggest stage.

Pretty important place on the political landscape, too.

The former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor sped around Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, shaking hands and taking photos with drivers and fans alike before what she called the "all-Americana event."

Palin said she was "having fun and not thinking about the politics of this," but didn't miss the chance to energize her base in one of the most critical regions of the largest swing state.

"This is awesome," she said. "It's all-Americana event. Good, patriotic, wonderful event that's bringing a whole lot of people together. I think this is good for our country."

Sporting a black coat, blue jeans and heels — no hand notes — the self-described "hockey mom" got the full experience in her first visit to the Daytona 500.

She sat through the pre-race driver meeting, muscled her way through pit road, took to the stage on the infield and wished drivers a safe race. She drew roars from throngs of racing fans, many shouting "We love you, Sarah!"

Palin wasn't with her husband, Todd, on Valentine's Day. She told the crowd he was back in Alaska preparing for the Iron Dog snowmobile race.

"Whether it's racing cars, dogs, snow machines, it's an event like this that brings all Americans together," she said.

Palin took just two questions from the only two reporters around her entourage, consisting of about a dozen security personnel and managers. That didn't stop her from doing what she does best: getting out in the crowds and mingling with supporters.

"I'm thinking about this good, active, speed-loving event that a lot of Alaskans, too, are really in to," said Palin, adding that some elements — minus the snow — were similar to the famous Iditarod sled dog race.

"We've got our snow-machine races up there. This is, of course, on a much greater scale," she said. "Same type of sport, though, same type of risk-taking, speed-loving all-American event that we participate up north. We love it. You bet."

Even some of the biggest names in NASCAR and entertainment couldn't resist her.

Seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty posed for a photo, singers Tim McGraw and Harry Connick Jr. greeted her, and everybody from Army members and Marines to autograph-seeking fans and kids in wheelchairs got hugs and handshakes.

Crew members on pit road even took a break from changing tires, some stunned to see Palin walking through their familiar domain before the race.

"If you run (for president) in 2012, you've got my vote," one told Palin, shaking her hand.

That was perhaps the biggest bonus of Palin's visit.

No region is a greater bellwether of who will win Florida and its 27 electoral votes than the counties that stretch along Interstate 4 from Tampa Bay, through Plant City and into Orlando and Daytona Beach.

Palin had no official role at the Daytona 500, only a VIP guest at NASCAR's most storied track. She will serve as guest speaker at the city's annual chamber of commerce dinner Monday.

Palin hasn't announced plans to run for president in 2012 but has said it would be "absurd" for her not to consider running. President Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008.