Jimmie Johnson keeps an apartment in New York City. He has friends in the city. Tony friends. They live on Park Avenue. They know NASCAR, and they are not alone in Manhattan in their love of NASCAR.
Yet every once in a while on his visits to New York, Johnson gets a wince-inducing reminder about just where he is - geographically and culturally.
"Sometimes I'll turn on the TV and I'll catch something - hear that banjo-picking stuff to the racing," said Johnson, the Nextel Cup point leader. "Nothing against it. I'll just be like: 'Is that really where we are today?'"
Kind of, kind of not. Certainly not when compared with the past.
That's what the 12 drivers involved in this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship found out as they spread out across Manhattan last week to promote their playoff, which began Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In fact, they found an acceptance as they faced cameras and microphones on the sets of national television shows like "Good Morning America" and "Live with Regis and Kelly."
And at the "Late Show with David Letterman," instead of being laughed at, they found an audience that laughed with them.
"Yes, definitely I've noticed a change in acceptance," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. "We were exposed to more media than ever (last week). And we are beginning to show up in new places, like The Village Voice. The Wall Street Journal had two stories on us. Two big stories."
Hunter said he also had noticed an increased sophistication by the national media in dealing with NASCAR. He said when drivers appeared on "Costas Now" on HBO, it was evident that host Bob Costas had done some research.
Sophistication in dealing with NASCAR was not at a high level when Bill France Jr. decided to hold the Nextel Cup series' year-end awards banquet in New York. And the evidence was noticeable not just in the fact that media representatives in the city were not doing their homework before beginning interviews.
"It was like we were all toothless," Hunter said. "Like we all chewed tobacco and wore bib overalls."
Driver Matt Kenseth said going to New York last week "was all right." He said the place was still more of a NASCAR territory than a full-fledged state in NASCAR Nation.
"I think its more about the media outlets ... than about the fans that live in New York City," Kenseth said.
But Johnson, who has had his apartment for five years, said: "I can see it changing more and more every year. And I think our sport is big enough, and there are people that we are not paying attention to. There are a lot of fans in the cities."