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NASCAR season gets racing

For hardcore NASCAR fans, today is the best day of the year — better than the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Friday of a three-day weekend.

It’s time for the Daytona 500.

The premier event for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the Daytona 500 kicks off every February, concluding a week of pageantry and preliminary races. It is widely called the “Super Bowl of NASCAR.”

NASCAR fan and Suffolk resident Greg Porter loves the sport so much that he found a job where he could be close to its symbols every day. He works at the RaceWorld store on Holland Road. Porter has followed the sport for more than 10 years — ever since his favorite driver, Tony Stewart, sprung onto the scene of what was then called the Winston Cup circuit.

“I’ve been a fan of his ever since his rookie year,” Porter said.

Porter initially followed Stewart because he is a Washington Redskins fan, and Stewart’s first car owner was none other than acclaimed Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

“I’ve been following him ever since,” Porter said. “I keep up with it all the time.”

In addition to watching every race on television and working with NASCAR memorabilia at the RaceWorld store — which also sells NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and college gear — Porter has traveled to several races at tracks in Richmond and Atlanta. He was in the stands at Richmond International Raceway when Stewart won his first Winston Cup race.

“I was in hog heaven,” said Porter, who even met Stewart at a charity benefit in Winston-Salem, N.C. several years later.

“He signed anything you wanted,” Porter said of Stewart, who ignored instructions from event organizers to sign only one item for each fan. Porter had four items signed by Stewart, who Porter said looked around furtively for event organizers and then signed the items.

“It’s definitely a great sport, and they’re really active with the fans,” Porter said.

For those who might take issue with the statement that auto racing is a “sport,” Porter points to the endurance necessary to drive 200 miles per hour on banked tracks, mere inches from competitors in cars that frequently top 120 degrees inside — with no power steering.

“They have such a strenuous workout regimen,” Porter said.

For people who think the sport is boring, Porter has an answer for that, too.

“Just watching it on TV, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of boring, they’re just running in circles,’” Porter said. “But when you go to the race, you have the engines roaring, the tires burning — it’s a great smell.”

Being at a race is almost like being in the middle of the action, Porter said. He returned from his first in-person race with a soot-covered face.

“It’s really hard to compare watching it on TV,” Porter said. “You’re right there in the action. When they get in wrecks, you see all the twisted sheet metal. I don’t know why I took so long to become a fan.”

The Daytona 500 begins at 1 p.m. today and will broadcast live on FOX. Pre-race coverage begins at noon.