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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Sponsors Call the Shots in Today’s NASCAR

In theory, sponsorship of a racecar would be beneficial for all of the entities concerned. In practice, the importance of sponsorship money can get out of control. It has become all consuming in NASCAR, and not to the sport’s benefit.

Think of most of the complaints about NASCAR today and most of them can be traced to pleasing the big money in some form. Vanilla drivers? NASCAR may have said to “have at it, boys”, but Scotts wasn’t too happy with Carl Edwards’s actions in Atlanta. Don’t like the Chase? NASCAR’s unpopular playoff system was a gift to Nextel for coming on board with $700 mil as the Cup series title sponsor. Broadcasts with endless commercials and Ford Cutaway Cars and cartoon gophers (t-shirts available!) drive you nuts? That one’s obvious. Gotta make a profit from spending $2.4 billion somehow.

There isn’t any question that the decision of who drives a racecar today is almost entirely dictated by a sponsor’s desires. The problem is particularly pronounced in the Nationwide Series, where the money more often than not goes with an established Cup name rather than with an up-and-coming talent or a proven driver running out of years and chances. It works in the short run as fans of Edwards and Kyle Busch get to watch their heroes duke it out in another series.

In the long run, the practice cuts down on developing talent. The days of six or seven Cup rookie of the year candidates are no more. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano total two drivers in three seasons that may be legitimate title contenders in the future. You might be able to add Justin Allgaier’s name to that list in a year, but no one else comes to mind.

The ugliest example of sponsor heavy-handedness was in Milwaukee, where Aric Almirola was yanked out of his racecar for the late-arriving Denny Hamlin because of “sponsor commitments.” Hamlin won the race, and as per NASCAR rules the win was credited to Almirola, who started in the racecar. Almirola did no celebrating and was understandably upset enough to leave Joe Gibbs Racing shortly afterward.

Danny O’Quinn won the then-Busch Series rookie of the year title in 2006; one year later, he was barely surviving as a NASCAR prospect driving for Mac Hill Motorsports. Scott Wimmer is consistently among the top performing non-Cup drivers in the series when he’s racing. There’s no reason whatsoever for him to be lacking for a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series based on his results.

Compare that to Danica Patrick, who is at best an average driver in her full-time series. Had she not appeared in numerous striptease GoDaddy commercials, the novelty of an attractive woman driving a racecar probably would have worn off after several unremarkable seasons. Instead, her foray into NASCAR racing, which has resulted in three finishes of 31st or worse, lacked for no exposure of any kind. The hype on ESPN was beyond laughable. Nevertheless, you can bet that no matter how many races Danica fails to crack the top 30, there will always be someone willing to fork over the cash to put her in a racecar. Not so for Kelly Bires, who did at least manage a top 10 in five races with JRM.

No one doubts that AMP Energy Drinks and the National Guard will stick with Dale Earnhardt Jr. throughout all of the tough times… and if they don’t, someone else with deep pockets will. Yet with times being what they are, the very car he owns in the Nationwide Series often features only the JR Motorsports logo. That is, except when the GoDaddy girl gets in the car.

NASCAR is a more generational sport than most, but in the past, it was rooted in driver fathers starting teams for aspiring driver sons. Most racing fans didn’t mind that Kyle Petty, Davey Allison or Earnhardt Jr. had a bit of a leg up on other Cup hopefuls; all of them had fathers with all of the respect in the world, and no one doubted that they weren’t going to go easy on their heirs.

More prevalent today is the wealthy entrepreneur offering sponsorship cash in exchange for putting his son in the racecar. It’s not that Paul Menard hasn’t paid his dues, but it is doubtful that a driver with his Cup numbers would have stuck around as long as he has without bringing guaranteed sponsorship with him. John Wes Townley’s Nationwide performance thus far has been that of a driver clearly not ready for the second biggest stock car racing series.

Race teams are willing to take such deals because it is tough to convince a corporation that they really could benefit from spending $10 million to have a racecar painted in their colors. But the difficulty of attaining sponsorship might be lessened if NASCAR were willing to forego exclusivity agreements in response to tough times. There’s an official cell phone service provider, an official tire, an official gasoline and many others, and none of those companies’ competitors can put their name on a racecar. Surely, Texaco or Michelin might be interested. NASCAR might argue that the revenue that exclusivity agreements brings in increases the purse sizes, and that is probably true, but that’s not much good to a fledgling owner who will have to pay for a racecar out of his own pocket and hope to heck it qualifies.

In a sense, you can’t really blame NASCAR or team owners. Most of us wouldn’t turn down $700 million from Nextel just for naming a series after them. Most owners could always use the extra cash Danica Patrick t-shirts will bring in. The problem is that with this money comes expectations, be it exclusive sponsorship that results in ugly lawsuits like the AT&T/Sprint mess, and drivers who haven’t yet learned how not to tear up equipment replacing capable pilots who could put on a better race. The coverage of Danica in the first three Nationwide races this year was grossly disproportionate to the increase in viewership because of her presence. Anyone who watched it probably would agree.

Say what you will about Rick Hendrick. The man gets how the racing business works. There wasn’t even a long period of speculation about where Kasey Kahne would land before Hendrick snapped him up. You can bet no expense was spared in pursuit of the young talent. Kahne is more than just a winner. He’ll also never have a problem bringing in sponsorship as a darling of female fans. Nor will he ever likely be someone who makes a sponsor uptight. No doubt, that figured into Hendrick’s decision to add another superstar to a team that doesn’t even have room for another superstar.

Picking up Kahne would have been a no-brainer in any era of NASCAR. But it especially works in favor of Hendrick Motorsports today, when acquiring sponsorship has never been at more of a premium. The startling thing is that Kasey didn’t even do any shopping, at least not in a public circus as with Hendrick’s last major driver acquisition. Hendrick must have made it clear to him that no expense would be spared to make Kahne happy. Maybe, just maybe, that might have something to do with Rick Hendrick’s success in this sport.

How else could it make sense that a team that let Kyle Busch go and kept Casey Mears could be sitting on top of the racing world?

I sure wouldn’t have thought of that.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • It’s kind of surprising that Bires was let go so quickly from JRM for a lack of performance. You would think Earnhardt Jr.’s team would understand being patient with a driver’s lack of performance.
  • Our newsletter reported yesterday that Michael McDowell would be sponsored by a ministry called I Am Second this Saturday at Texas. Somehow “I Am Second” doesn’t sound like a winning name for a racing team sponsor.
  • With Kahne taking over the No. 5 in 2012, where is Mark Martin going? Somehow I have a hunch he’ll race part-time for Jack Roush again. Because we know he sure as heck ain’t gonna retire.
  • Can you believe that Jeff Gordon’s last win came one year ago at Texas, and that that has been his only win since Charlotte of 2007? That guy used to win more races than he started. And yet still fifth in the standings. Don’t believe the people who say he’s lost it. He hasn’t.

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