MARTINSVILLE, Va. – For NASCAR fans the Nextel Cup Series (search) is one of the most exciting seasons for stock car racing.
Running from early February all the way through Thanksgiving, 43 of the sport's finest drivers and cars go head-to-head, taking to different cities and different tracks every weekend.
This weekend the big show is at Texas Motor Speedway (search) in Fort Worth for the O'Reilly 300 in the Busch Series.
And for the millions of Americans who follow stock car racing throughout the year, now's the time to break out the SPF 30. The sun is hotter and “race burn” on the nose, neck and ears is as common as cars rubbing on the turns.
"I like the people," said Libbie Pennel of Taylorsville, N.C., last weekend in Martinsville, Va., for the Advance Auto Parts 500. "We've met such nice people at race tracks, we've made some great friends over the years," she said.
But for the drivers who make the sport go round and round at high speeds at tracks like Texas Motor Speedway or Daytona International Speedway (search), it’s all business.
“A championship last year is not going to drive us to one this year,” said Kurt Busch (search) from atop his hauler the day before the race. “We have to come out here every weekend with the best car and do the best we can to win.”
(The tractor-trailers that line the inside of the pit road and serve as team lounges and carry tools, parts and two race cars to every track are known as team haulers).
Busch, who debuted his purple Crown Royal No. 97 Ford and the defending Nextel Cup champ in Martinsville, came in 19th after spinning into a wall in a heated battle with No. 24 Jeff Gordon (search).
Gordon went on to win his 71st NASCAR (search) victory.
He dedicated the win to the families and friends who perished after a Hendricks Motorsports plane crashed after last year's race in Martinsville.
“I was stoked to win Number 70 in Daytona,” Gordon told FOX News from the winner’s circle. “It seems like with every victory there’s a hurdle to overcome and today was no exception. It was a hard-fought race and I’m glad that I could come home and win,” he said.
For the faithful who make up NASCAR nation, it is those tough races that keep them coming back for more.
"It's family fun," said one father who sat in the grandstands with his two adult sons. "We come out and have a good time together."
Unlike watching other professional sporting events, in racing, the higher the seat, the more expensive. Higher seats are more desirable than trackside seats because they provide the best view of the entire track, and it's not as hard on the ears.
Earplugs or radio headsets dialed in to the track's radio coverage are worn to protect spectators' hearing. The engines roaring around the track are extremely loud. Young children particularly should not watch an entire race without earplugs.
Culture of NASCAR Fans Purely American
It’s hot dogs and Budweiser. It’s annual tradition, where some times as many as three generations of fathers, sons, mothers and daughters pack into their own hauler and head out to the nearest track for race weekend.
"The fans are real winners in this whole progress," said Busch. "It's them that make the sport what it is. They come out as early as 6 a.m. on a Thursday just as the crews are arriving, just to get a glimpse of their favorite car or driver," he said.
NASCAR is one of the only sports where the stars routinely park in practically the same lots as the fans, and it’s pretty common to see Dale Jarrett or Tony Stewart signing autographs for fans young and old alike.
“This is a tradition every year in Martinsville and Richmond,” said one autograph seeker waiting on line at Busch’s merchandise truck, where he signs autographs on various paraphernalia, like posters, hats and T-shirts.
“Kurt’s out here every race getting to know his fans,” said Glen Moran of Richmond, Va. “He’s a good guy.”
Fans are not only loyal to drivers, they also stay true to teams owners (Roush Racing, Hendricks Motorsports, etc.), and the sponsors whose logos adorn the cars, firesuits and crew uniforms.
"Sponsors are very critical and more important every day," Mike Helton (search), NASCAR's president, told FOX News.
"The economic support to the sport and the car owners bears the financial burden so fans don't have to," he said. "But they [sponsors] also play a role in sampling our sport for us, whether it be in a marketing campaign or a retail outlet, bringing more customers to the racetrack," he said.
Indeed, sponsors get prominent play in all NASCAR coverage.
It’s not just "Number 20 Tony Stewart." It’s “Number 20 Home Depot Tony Stewart.” The same goes for "Number 24 Jeff Gordon DuPont,” or “Kurt Busch Number 97 Sharpie or Crown Royal.”
Each sponsor tries to get a message across. With Crown Royal, the motto “Be A Champion, Drink Responsibly” was emblazoned below the rear spoiler of Busch's Ford.
"We are thrilled to be here," said Ivan Menezes, president and CEO of Diageo North America, the company that owns Crown Royal. "There are 75 million fans, and we're promoting a message of responsible drinking with the champion, Kurt Busch, who is a great role model," he said.
New sponsorships are also exciting for the crews, drivers and the fans.
"This year's chances are better than last year's," said die-hard Kurt Busch fan Christopher Williams of South Carolina, as he lined up to get several die-cast replica race cars autographed.
"The team morale is better and he's higher up in points," he said.
Ten-year-old Bill Capps is sticking with Jeff Gordon. "I like him cause he's good and I like to see him race," he said.
Scott Wood of Roxbury, N.J., came with a group of friends, each one rooting for a separate member of the Roush Racing Team.
"It's our first time here in Martinsville and we're having a great time," he said.