The biggest star of America's second-most watched sport took a very public stroll around Millennium Park this week, yet no one seemed to notice.
"I went to the Bean and no one said a word," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., nine-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award. "Anytime you go to a city like Chicago, you can kind of blend right in."
Fellow driver Kasey Kahne also noted his relative anonymity in the city.
"Once you get out of the city, you see a lot of fans in this area," he said. "But here? You're not going to run into a lot of race fans. You just don't."
There's plenty of evidence that racing doesn't rev the engines of most city dwellers. However, the motorsports giant has fueled up this week for its biggest push to date into the hearts of Chicagoans.
Instead of holding the kickoff race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup—NASCAR's version of playoffs—in New Hampshire, officials in 2011 moved it to Chicagoland Speedway's Geico 400 in Joliet. The 1.5-mile oval-shaped track will again host the first Chase event Sunday.
"It's important to launch the Chase for the Sprint Cup in a major market and Chicago is a great place for sports fans and race fans,"said Lou Garate, senior director of partnership marketing for NASCAR. "We've had some challenges in breaking through in this market, and that's part of why we're doing it here. We want to break through and be relevant here."
As part of that strategy, NASCAR chose the House of Blues in River North—an hour's drive from Joliet—as the location for a sold-out Contenders Live fan event Wednesday that brought together Earnhardt Jr. and the 11 other drivers who qualified for the Chase for a Q&A with Fox Sports host Chris Myers. Of the estimated 1,200 fans who attended to see the likes of defending champion Tony Stewart or five-time Sprint Cup winner Jimmie Johnson in person, many hailed from the suburbs or even neighboring states Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa.
But Chicagoland Speedway president Scott Paddock is preaching patience when it comes to gaining traction in a city whose pro sports scene is dominated by historic franchises in the four major team sports.
"The Cubs have been here over 100 years and the Bears were one of the original franchises in the NFL. We've only been in this market less than a decade now, so it's going to take some time to build the brand here," he said. "Give us a few years and I think we'll see more appeal."
NASCAR officials also cite statistics from from New York-based Scarborough Research that one in five adults in the Chicago market are "interested" in NASCAR, which makes Chicago a top-five NASCAR market based on the number of fans. But that number is markedly down from 26 percent in 2007. The decline may not be Chicago specific. Attendance and television ratings numbers for many of the Sprint Cup races this season remain stuck in neutral or dipped from the previous year.
NASCAR also isn't the only motorsports organization attempting to break into the city limits. An event management firm in Deerfield has been unsuccessful in its recent proposal to hold an IndyCar race in July 2013 that would have created a 2.4 mile-course through the heart of the city—including a large portion of Lake Shore Drive—and a corresponding "Festival of Speed" in Grant Park.
Though no one would mistake the Second City for Talladega, Chase contender Martin Truex Jr. believes Sunday's race could help change that somewhat.
"If we can put on a big show this week and have a good race, hopefully we can get people pumped up for our sport," he said. "I can't think of a better racetrack or a cooler city to be in."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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