With a portfolio that ranges from college sports to country music, sponsorship has long played a key role for OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC’s Outback Steakhouse.

And 2012 is no exception. Outback has expanded its portfolio with a tie to Stewart-Haas Racing’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team piloted by Ryan Newman. The restaurant chain is titling the car at two races—the April 1 race at Martinsville Speedway and the Aug. 25 race at Bristol Motor Speedway—and cosponsoring the vehicle for the rest of the season.

The tie builds on a portfolio that includes 17-year title of the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., a two-year-old partnership with country musician Tim McGraw and roughly 25 colleges and universities.

The goal of the sponsorships: Driving incremental sales and guest counts.  

“We don’t sponsor for trips, trinkets and tickets. The reason for any sponsorship is to put more guests into our restaurants,” said Karen Soots, OSI’s senior director of media services.

With 98 percent brand awareness, the company downplays signage and other exposure-driving inventory in favor of activation platforms that can be measured, she said.

“I wouldn’t dare put my money on something we couldn’t activate.”

Case in point: OSI is activating its NASCAR team with a weekly promotion that dangles a free Bloomin’ Onion appetizer at any Outback Steakhouse following each top-ten finish. Consumers must redeem the offer on the Monday immediately following the race.

The promotion can be easily measured, said Soots.

“People have to say ‘Ryan won the race’ to receive the appetizer, so we can track how many people come into our restaurants because of the promotion.”

In addition to incremental sales, the promotion has generated unexpected media coverage. Commentators from the Fox Network talked about the promotion after Newman’s April 1 win, while Jeff Gordon mentioned an upcoming trip to Outback in a congratulatory tweet to the driver.  

“The sponsorship and Bloomin’ Monday promotion worked so well that even Jeff Gordon went in for a free Bloomin’ Onion on the Monday following Ryan’s win,” said Soots.

Outback also is touting the sponsorship with two limited-edition gift cards that feature the likeness of Newman as well as www.OutbackSteakhouseRacing.com

OSI—which operates roughly 780 Outback Steakhouse restaurants in the U.S.—partnered with SHR in part due to Newman’s long-running partnership with the U.S. Army, one of the driver’s major sponsors. The company supports the armed forces by providing food to soldiers in Afghanistan and other combat and non-combat zones. 

As such, Outback uses the partnership to build relations with the U.S. Army and other SHR sponsors. For example, the restaurant chain has used Newman in fundraising campaigns for Operation Homefront, a nonprofit that raises money for military families.

Outback also has provided prizes for Quicken Loans, Inc.’s You’re the Boss sweepstakes and The Coca-Cola Co.’s VIP Giveaway Sweeps at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Coke sweeps dangled the chance to win a ride with Newman or another driver in the Coca-Cola Racing Family, as well as other prizes.

Outside of NASCAR, Outback focuses on two other national properties: The Outback Bowl and Tim McGraw. The company largely uses the college bowl game as a community relations play around its Tampa, Fla. headquarters, while it activated McGraw’s 2011 tour by distributing gift cards in the artist’s CD that were sold through Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

McGraw also helps support OSI’s partnership with Operation Homefront, said Soots.

On the local front, OSI sponsors athletic departments at roughly 25 colleges and universities. The company last year centralized the ties to gain economies of scale through a one-stop buy with IMG College. The partnerships primarily include radio and online assets. 

Local marketing teams support golf tournaments and other types of local events through in-kind contributions, said Soots.

OSI Restaurant Partners also owns the Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurant chains.