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Can the Chase race at Chicago escape the shadow of the Bears?

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- This weekend, the Chase for the Championship will open in one of America's great cities, Chicago. But will NASCAR's championship series be able to escape the large shadow cast by the mighty Chicago Bears?

That is a big question. New Hampshire has been the opening track since the Chase began in 2004. NASCAR officials, however, wanted to kick off the Chase this year in the largest market on the Sprint Cup schedule, thus Chicagoland Speedway, in the south suburb of Joliet, will play host to the opening round of the Chase.

"It's obviously a huge market and it will be a new break and new start for us, so we are looking forward to getting to the Windy City next week," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said Saturday night at Richmond. "It's important for us to activate our presence there. There is a new promoter in Scott Paddock at that track and we are confident it will be well-promoted and well attended."

When NASCAR hits town it hopes to be the No. 1 story in that market. That was the case last weekend in Richmond, Va., where the regular-season finale led nightly newscasts and filled column inches in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The same happens when NASCAR takes its Chase race to Charlotte, Talladega, and other spots.

When the Chicago decision was announced last fall, it was met with a lukewarm response from the Windy City media outlets. In Chicago, the Bears are king, and even though they will be playing the New Orleans Saints on the road Sunday, most of the television sets in the market will be tuned to the Bears and not the Chase.

France is hoping NASCAR can make an impact in the Chicago market. "We are going to get our piece of Chicago and make an impact, even though the Bears are obviously a big deal in Chicago," he said.

Those who understand the Chicago market, however, predict that fans will be more focused on Jay Cutler, quarterback of the Bears, rather than Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick, the two drivers at the top of the standings as the Chase begins.

"It's not that we don't think it [the Chase race] is important, but everybody will be sending at least one television crew to New Orleans for the Bears game," said Dan Roan, sports director for WGN Television and WGN America in Chicago. "Having said that, I understand NASCAR's objective. Why wouldn't you want to be in one of the biggest markets in the country? ... Running on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, though, I'm not so sure about that one."

NASCAR will do a fine job with a pre-race media blitz beginning Thursday at the LaSalle Power Company -- a trendy nightclub in downtown Chicago -- as all 12 drivers in the Chase field will be available for the local and national media who will be covering the race.

But don't expect that coverage to put a dent in the amount of time that will be given to the Bears. In this market, NASCAR remains a curiosity.

"I would say it is [a curiosity] and I would say it's not firmly entrenched, and I know the die-hard fans of this sport would not agree with it, but it is absolutely true," Roan said. "Every year NASCAR does a great job promoting and publicizing and making these guys available and we really appreciate that. Availability is there for us and it's a big help. If we didn't have that, we would have a tough time doing much of anything on that race this weekend. But on our Sunday night sports show NASCAR will be well down on our list."

Roan has been in Chicago for 27 years and believes it is a parochial town when it comes to local sports, which is why it is hard for nontraditional sports such as NASCAR to make an impact locally.

"[Chicago fans] are very much interested in all the teams, but outside of the Cubs winning a World Series, which we may never see, there is nothing bigger than a Bears game on a Sunday," Roan said. "I think NASCAR was better off in terms of local coverage and interest in the middle of July than moving into Bears season."

NASCAR will also be going up against the BMW Championship, the penultimate tournament of the PGA playoffs, which is being held at Cog Hill, located only 30 miles from downtown Chicago.

NASCAR is hopeful it can coexist with the Chicago Bears in the same manner it does with the Carolina Panthers when the series hits Charlotte in October. The big difference: that is a Saturday night race while the Panthers play on Sunday.

The race at Texas has always been able to successfully take on the Dallas Cowboys during the NFL season by attracting crowds in excess of 100,000 fans on the same day the Cowboys are playing.

Chicago is relatively new as a NASCAR market with Chicagoland Speedway hosting its first race in 2001. The Chicago Bears are one of the NFL's charter franchises, beginning competition in 1919 as the Decatur Staleys.

"This is the first time we've had the opening event of the Chase in Chicago so no matter where you have an event, it takes a while to build on it," said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway. "But I think the general principle of it being in Chicago is a good move. I know you have the Chicago Bears and are running the same day those guys are but we do have the following and we are major league enough that it shouldn't be a factor.

"The NFL has been around a long time and has done a good job promoting their product but on the flip side, NASCAR does, too. We have to take a stand and run our events and hopefully it will all pan out and we'll be fine. NASCAR is in town and this is the first race of the Chase so I think it will be positive."

Nobody understands the impact of the NFL on NASCAR more than Joe Gibbs. As the head coach of the Washington Redskins he led the team to three Super Bowl titles before becoming a NASCAR team owner. His drivers have won three Sprint Cup titles.

"I think it's a great sports town and there is enough to go around," Gibbs said. "I think NASCAR and the NFL are the two sports to me and between those two there are a lot of carry-over fans that like both. I like going to big cities. This sport should be the biggest and best across America. In a city the size of Chicago, I think they can support a NASCAR race and the NFL season at the same time."

If that happens, Chicago will truly be NASCAR's kind of town. Even if that doesn't happen, the drivers who will open the Chase for the Championship in Chicago are excited to open their playoffs in the big city.

"I'm really excited for it," said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "I think the Chicago area and the racetrack is going to be a great host for the start of the Chase."

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