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Full Throttle: “Kahne” the New Face of Budweiser Pull It Off?

After it was announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would not take Budweiser with him to Hendrick Motorsports next year, the search was on to find the person that could best exemplify the beer company’s image.

It didn’t take long for them to find their man.

At a press conference Tuesday, Kasey Kahne will be introduced as the front man for the most popular beer in the world. The 27-year-old from Enumclaw, Wash. inherits the role of Earnhardt, as the series’ Most Popular Driver is off to hawk PepsiCo products instead for 2008 and beyond. The multi-year deal has the beer company now sharing space with Allstate, replacing Dodge Dealers as the primary sponsor of Kahne’s No. 9 car after seven years on the hood.

So, that’s right, folks; Bud is going from the everyman, all-encompassing fanbase of Earnhardt to… the guy with the girls stalking him in the car insurance commercials? For those observing the sport, it’s not the likeliest match made in heaven. Don’t get me wrong; Kahne is undoubtedly one of the most marketable figures out there today. However, his placement with an alcohol sponsor seems like it might be a bit of a reach – not to mention a bit out of character – for his clean-cut, aww shucks image.

One of NASCAR’s most high-profile sponsors long before they became associated with Earnhardt, Budweiser has a long and rich history with the sport they hope to continue on with Kahne. Arriving at the Cup level in 1983 – when they sponsored Billy Hagan’s car driven by Terry Labonte – the brewery bounced around with a variety of teams before settling in with Junior back in 1999. Throughout the process, they’ve won 45 times, accumulated over 100 top-five finishes and spent countless millions in advertising dollars to help promote the sport. Surprisingly, in 24 years of putting their logos on a side of a car, they have but one Nextel Cup to their name; that came in 1985, when driver Darrell Waltrip took the No. 11 to the championship driving for Junior Johnson. Still, the overall success of the sponsorship has left the company one of the most well-known to be associated with NASCAR. Other notable drivers to carry the Bud colors include Neil Bonnett, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader, Randy LaJoie, Ricky Craven, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and of course, Earnhardt Jr.

NEFF: BUDWEISER’S BIG BLUNDER

While that list is lengthy, most of these drivers shared an intriguing similarity, creating a type of persona that was associated with being a “Bud man.” A “Bud man” was the kind of guy that you would not be surprised to see sitting at the end of the bar sampling their sponsor’s wares when you walked into your local watering hole. They were guys who had dirt under their fingernails, went hunting and fishing, drove their own car to the airport and wouldn’t be caught dead in an establishment with the word Salon in the name. With the exception of Northeasterners Craven and LaJoie – neither of whom drove the car for very long – every driver hired appeared to follow that template.

Until now.

Born from a different breed, Kahne doesn’t seem to fall into any of those categories. More Madison Avenue than avid outdoorsman, it is hard to imagine Kahne field dressing a deer or fileting a fish. In fact, the man’s so young-looking he could easily pass for under 21 at times! Let’s just say it’s not exactly who you would be expecting to hock an alcoholic product to a group of NASCAR fans.

Now Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman? They’d be great Bud men for sure! Based on their images, they would not only kill their food to eat it, but they’d also take their cars apart on the side of the road and fix them without an instruction manual. But their sponsors are locked up long-term, and as such, Budweiser was faced with a difficult choice; go with the highest-profile young driver out there and go to a race with what you have, or find yourselves out of the sport for the first time in 24 years. Looking back, it was easy to choose the former, wasn’t it?

Of course, there is no doubt that Kahne has the same on-track ability as the others do; it’s just the off-track image is so different, sticking him together with Budweiser feels like a square peg being forced into a round hole. No question about it, this sponsor/driver marriage is going to take quite a bit of effort from the suits that make the rules to gain public acceptance of Kahne as the new face of Budweiser. He has carried a very clean cut All-American boy image from his roots in Enumclaw, Wash. all the way to the top level of NASCAR competition. But that’s not exactly the most exciting thing to promote when you’re making a beer commercial, and it’s going to be interesting to see if anything Kahne has believed so strongly in not doing is going to be compromised over the next year. In the meantime, this new image is going to be completely foreign to his fans, and they’ll clearly have an adjustment period.

Just don’t be surprised if there is quite a bit of backlash from Bud fans around the world the first time Kahne tries to churn yak butter with Budweiser. While Junior and Kahne are both popular in their own right, both outwardly give the appearance of being very different people. Fair or unfair, the second driver listed above is not the first man you think of on tour when you think beer; and because of that, marketers are going to be working overtime to fix an obvious disconnect that shows no signs of changing right off the bat.

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