It was reported Tuesday that the Home Depot will be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 20 Toyota at the end of the 2014 season.
Color me unsurprised.
Is it because JGR is an unsuccessful stable and the Home Depot never gets air time? No. Not in the least. Just about every week Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are figuring in the top 10 of the race. They get camera time–at least on Sunday afternoon.
But it takes more than a few speed shots of a Toyota once a week to keep a major retail sponsor handing out the goodies these days. You’ve got to be making the headlines all week long, and that is where the Orange Store is no longer feeling the return in their investment in these trying economic times. Unless Matt Kenseth is leading the race or grinding Jimmie Johnson’s bumper, he is one driver who lives off the public radar the rest of the time. He always has.
During the latest Silly Season shenanigans, and the rumors of M&M’s leaving the No. 18–perhaps to bring Edwards over from Roush, I tried on each driver with each sponsor. Would Carl sell chocolate well? Yeah, he’s pretty likable. Smiles pretty at the camera. Busch certainly makes a good poster child for Monster Energy drink, connecting with the younger, angsty NASCAR crowd. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed calling Kyle Busch “M&M Boy” from time to time, but I’ve never really considered him a family friendly sponsor spokesman. However, due to his vitriolic personality, the candy company never has trouble finding their driver–and thus their name–popping up in sports journals and evening shows on a regular basis. That’s right. Any publicity is good publicity. The latest reports have M&M’s staying where they are.
Denny Hamlin’s physical and mental struggles kept the No. 11 FedEx machine in the spotlight over the past few years. He’s also probably generated a few more years of devotion from his sponsors simply by Tweeting to his Mom.
Now, the Depot hit a gold mine when Tony Stewart joined NASCAR in 1999. Like Busch, he was a pushy, angry, young man. You’d find him in somebody’s face as often as you’d see him hoisting a trophy in Victory Lane. And just when we thought Smoke was beginning to mellow, the reins of the extremely recognizable No. 20 was handed over to Joey Logano in 2009.
Was the Home Depot ready to leave? Oh no. Not with something as juicy as Sliced Bread climbing into the cockpit. For the next few years, Logano held onto the cameras simply by being a rookie. He’d wreck, blame it on somebody else, or maybe return the niceties with a little name calling. No, he wasn’t winning–but popularity doesn’t always come with Victory Lane. The sponsor still was seeing a return on their investment through the valuable association with a visible driver. Joey Logano was the Home Depot machine, and vice versa.
But what happened over the past year? Well, before 2013, Dollar General had been turning the No. 20 yellow in Nationwide for a few years, with considerable success. The association with a driver wasn’t hammered into the viewer as much as with winning. It didn’t matter who climbed behind the wheel on Saturday, the No. 20 Dollar General machine was going to win. So, their step-up to Sprint Cup made lots of sense. And the Home Depot took a back seat–or back bumper.
For the last 18 months, every time the No. 20 came into view on Sunday, I’ve had to stop and think really hard. Who was driving? Oh, that’s right. Matt Kenseth. Perennially in view of the leaders, often enough in Victory Lane, and the rest of the time simply off my radar. Along with his sponsors–whether it be Dollar General or Home Depot.
Perhaps it was fitting that in Sonoma, we watched the Home Depot back into the tire barrier. Yes, Kenseth’s wreck was dramatic, and yet anti-climatic. He climbed from his car and strolled to the ambulance. In his interview he sedately called it a racing deal, more or less. The most exciting moment of the race diminished in intensity through Kenseth’s monotonous public persona.
Would you put your company’s name on the side of his car?
Matt Kenseth is a champion. He is a hugely talented stock car driver. He is…I’ve got nothing more. And more is what it takes to stamp a car’s number AND its sponsors into NASCAR Nation’s conscience.
Don’t blame the economy. Don’t blame Gibbs. And heck, you really can’t blame Kenseth. This isn’t supposed to be about selling hammers and nails. But when all is said and done, maybe it is. Ain’t that depressing.
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