CHICAGO: Trevor Bayne continues to impress me.
At a pair of stops Tuesday on a cross-country promotional tour celebrating his unlikely win Sunday in the Daytona 500, Bayne showed two very key elements of a champion-to-be.
First, winning the Great American Race was without question the greatest thing that ever happened to him. But more important, he is remaining humble and true to his Tennessee roots.
Sure, it's only been a few days, but he isn't showing one iota of not remaining the level-headed kid he was before exploding upon the NASCAR scene in the biggest way possible.
When he mingled with fans at a morning event sponsored by Chicagoland Speedway, Bayne was genuine and friendly.
Sure, he was promoting the track and the NASCAR race events it will host this year, including the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in mid-September.
But Bayne was also giving us an up-close-and-personal view of himself, essentially promoting just who he is as a person as well, namely an extremely intelligent and deeply religious individual.
Let's also not forget that this is one very intelligent young man; his mother would not let him race during his high school years unless he maintained a 4.0 grade-point average.
You think winning Daytona is pressure? Try earning straight A's during the week, otherwise you can't race your go-kart or (in later years) race car.
If American Idol had a NASCAR version, Bayne would win it hands down. He has the chops, the looks and the talent, yet at the same time he also has the almost shy persona of a wide-eyed, freshly scrubbed kid who just won a trip to Disneyland and is enjoying every minute of it.
The other thing I noticed about Bayne came a bit later in the morning in a second event at Chicago's famed Morton's Steakhouse.
He was there not only for a lengthy interview on ESPN 1000, the powerful AM station that reaches 38 states during the day, but more importantly, Bayne was there to hobnob, shake hands and be patted on the back by close to 100 of Chicago's top movers and shakers.
In other words, the corporate partners of Chicagoland Speedway, existing sponsors (of either signage at the track or suite holders or both).
But there were also a number of potential new sponsors that track president Scott Paddock and his staff were trying to woo to be part of the fun and racing action at the track about 45 miles southwest of Chicago.
And right in the middle of it all was Bayne. Not only was he the new Daytona 500 winner, but he was a significant factor in what hopefully will be several key new business deals that will help the track further extend its reach and popularity—not only in the Windy City, but also in the overall NASCAR community as a whole.
That's particularly important because this year marks the 10th anniversary of Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile banked facility that is one of the most underrated tracks on the Nationwide and Cup Series, in my opinion.
Sure, I may be prejudiced a bit, given that Chicago is my hometown and I live only 20 minutes away from the track. But it's not a reach to say that as Chicagoland Speedway goes, so goes NASCAR.
The track is a very pivotal and important cog in NASCAR's plans for the future. Up to now, while it has made some good inroads, Chicagoland Speedway still has never realized its full potential.
That's why Paddock, a longtime sports-marketing whiz who was recently named track president, couldn't be happier to have a guy like Bayne come in, shake a bunch of hands, smile his million-dollar smile and extol the virtues of racing and watching racing at Chicagoland Speedway.
Parent company International Speedway Corp., NASCAR's Speedway arm, didn't just give Chicagoland Speedway the kickoff race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup because it wanted to be nice. Rather, it shows just how significant the Chicago market is to NASCAR and ISC.
Chicagoland Speedway has, at times, struggled over the years to attract media attention and notoriety when it comes to motor sports. Plus, the downturn in the economy has hurt track attendance the last few years.
But rather than lament or bemoan "woe is me and NASCAR," Brian France and ISC put their money where their mouths are.
Given that Auto Club Speedway of Southern California and the Los Angeles metro market both lost a Chase race and were further reduced from two to just one event on the Cup schedule, the Chicago market has become one on which NASCAR is pinning many of its hopes to help play a big part in an overall rebound season in popularity for the sport—both for TV ratings and, of course, at-track attendance.
After all, Chicago is the third-largest TV market in the country behind New York (which does not have a Cup-level track) and L.A. It is also home to a number of Fortune 500 companies that are either headquartered or have substantial corporate footprints in the Windy City.
With all due respect to New Hampshire Motor Speedway (one of my favorite tracks, run by some of my favorite people in the business), NASCAR needed a bigger bang to start the Chase.
New Hampshire has done a great job in the first seven years of starting off the Chase. But its remoteness—roughly 100 miles from Boston and close to 275 miles from New York City—has always been a negative.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway will continue to be a part of the Chase, but it will become the second race of NASCAR's playoffs this year, while Chicago takes center stage and top billing to kick off the 10-race countdown to crowning the Sprint Cup champion.
Just because of the way the Sprint Cup schedule has fallen since it opened and held its first race in 2001, Chicagoland Speedway suffered in a number of ways to attract fans at times.
Weekend afternoons in early-to-mid July can be rather toasty in the City of Big Shoulders (thank goodness NASCAR installed lights a few years ago so that races could be held at night, when it's cooler, not to mention that it gives a greater visual experience to both at-track and at-home fans watching on TV, with all the sparks flying on the track and occasionally some sparks flying between drivers).
There've also been other distractions along the way. One year, the race went up against the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Comiskey Park.
Other years, it's gone against some strong homestands for the Cubs and White Sox. Or in other years, it went head-to-head with the PGA Tour's Western Open at nearby Cog Hill Country Club.
What Chicagoland Speedway needed was a date to stand on its own, to showcase what it can do in a most optimal fashion, to essentially become the only game in town, when those who like to show off how cool they are can do so at the cool NASCAR race right down Interstate 55 from downtown Chicago.
Granted, the 2011 NFL schedule has not yet been released, so Chicagoland's Sprint Cup race on Sept. 18 still has a chance of going up against a Bears' home game at Soldier Field, given the starting time for the race right now is at 2:15 pm ET (don't be surprised if NASCAR shifts the drop of the green flag to later in the afternoon or evening, if that's the case).
Of course, if the NFL and its players union end up in a labor dispute that shuts down or causes a lengthy delay to the regular season, Chicagoland Speedway would be sitting especially pretty.
It could also have competition from the Cubs or White Sox if either or both is in the playoff hunt with two weeks to go in the regular season.
But in the whole, big scheme of things, Chicagoland Speedway couldn't ask for a better race date on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Even if the Bears and Cubs or Sox are playing at home on race day, NASCAR will still play to a national TV audience, thanks to the sanctioning body's all-out effort to showcase the race, the track and, of course, the city of Chicago.
That's why Chicagoland Speedway got the kickoff Chase race and why Bayne was in Chicago Tuesday to promote the race and the track to fans and business leaders alike.
Chicagoland Speedway will likely never be as big and legendary as its older cousin about 180 miles southeast, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But there's no reason Chicagoland Speedway can't become one of NASCAR's most popular tracks.
Right now, the track holds around 75,000 fans. And plans have been on the drawing board to eventually increase seating to 100,000 or more.
But with the economy being the way it has been, those plans have long been shelved and likely won't be dusted off for quite some time to come.
Still, the city of Chicago and its hometown track are right in the middle of NASCAR's radar to take things not just to the next level, but a few levels beyond.
And to think, a newly-turned 20-year-old could very well wind up being one of the most significant ambassadors for not only the sport, but for Chicagoland Speedway achieving that hoped-for success.
Chicagoland Speedway's press release on Trevor Bayne's visit to Chicago on Tuesday: http://www.chicagolandspeedway.com/Articles/2011/02/Trevor-Bayne-Hits-the-Windy-City.aspx
Pick up Jerry Bonkowski's latest book, "TRADING PAINT -- 101 Great NASCAR Debates", published by Wiley & Sons, at your local bookstore, or online at Wiley.com.