NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Did You Notice?: NASCAR’s ‘Lowes’-t Point

Did You Notice? … One of NASCAR’s biggest sponsors over the last two decades is choosing to abandon a seven-time Cup Series champion? Lowe’s is leaving Jimmie Johnson after the 2018 season, making it the sport’s most recognizable driver/sponsor pairing headed toward divorce.

For Lowe’s, the decision ends over 17 years of sponsorship of Johnson and the No. 48. They’re one of the few sponsors left that pay for a full season; and it’s a premium cost to pair up with a seven-time series champion. (Some have the contract, though itʻs never been publicized, pegged as costing upwards of $25 million a year.)

But there’s little reason for Lowe’s to continue this marketing strategy. For one, their biggest competitor, Home Depot, stopped sponsorship in the sport several years ago. Menards, which backs Paul Menard and the Wood Brothers is the only other main rival still in this space. But their income is nearly six times less than Lowe’s; NASCAR presence aside, they’re getting walloped on and off the track.

That means Lowe’s is paying a premium price in a shopping center where no one else is renting. Not only that, but as NASCAR’s ratings have declined, so has the power and influence of the team it’s aligned with. Since the end of 2015, Hendrick Motorsports has seen Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retire and their replacements have gone winless in those cars.

That leaves the pressure (and sole marketability) on Johnson himself to perform, a stage in which the No. 48 team has stumbled. Johnson’s 2017 season was a disaster, period, everywhere you looked down the stat line.

Top-five finishes

Previous low: 6, 2002

Career average: 13.9 

2017 total: 4

 

Top-10 finishes

Previous low: 16, 2016

Career average: 21.3 (20+ top 10s every year from 2002-15)

2017 total: 11

 

Laps led

Previous low: 547, 2005

Career average: 1,166.4

2017 total: 217

 

Johnson followed up this downward trend with a 2018 start peppered with goose eggs all across the board: poles, top 10s, laps led. The team sits 26th in points, is adjusting without longtime car chief Ron Malec and hasn’t earned a top-10 finish in ten races. For some drivers, that’s no big deal; for Johnson? It’s the longest stretch of this seven-time Cup champion’s career.

Less time up front means less time in front of the camera. Consider, too, that Johnson falls victim to a new NASCAR marketing strategy of putting their “young guns” front and center. A move to push fresh faces forward sends a message to major companies backing the veterans: if your guy doesn’t win, well, don’t expect us to keep him relevant.

That can’t work with a sponsor who spends more per season than two or three underdog teams combined. So Lowe’s, with Johnson now the oldest driver in the series (aged 42), feels like they’ve maxed out on their investment. Only time will tell if they’re cashing out on just Johnson or NASCAR itself.

Either way, it’s the type of negative news cycle the sport didn’t need. Lowe’s joins Target, Dollar General, Farmers Insurance, and plenty more top-tier companies bailing on primary backing of a race car. NASCAR title sponsor Monster Energy is also giving the runaround on whether they’ll actually renew following the 2018 season. In their place, we’ve yet to see a major Fortune 500 company put the hammer down and say, “I’m backing a car for all nine months.”

No, I don’t want to hear about Click ‘N’ Close. Real talk. NASCAR needs a big-name company to come calling. Microsoft. Amazon. Walmart. Someone who will actually move the needle. Big business needs to stop the bleeding here by hedging their bets on the sport. The only way you stop negative branding now is to get a major corporation to pump out positivity. (A new manufacturer wouldn’t hurt, either. There’s nothing that triggers a spending spree more than a new car and full chassis reset).

Right now is a moment, then where NASCAR CEO Brian France must lead. The sport’s top executive needs to publicly reassure fans, owners, and drivers the sport is on a strong financial footing. And then? He has to deliver.

Here’s the problem: France isn’t exactly the world’s best public speaker. A well-documented series of gaffes, peaking with an awkward November 2016 State of the Sport had NASCAR President Brett Dewar sharing the mic with France at Homestead last year.

So maybe it’s Dewar, then, that comes out and makes a strong statement on the sport’s future. But rumors of new sponsors, teams and manufacturers must be replaced by a different word: reality. Until there’s hard, factual news of fresh money entering the sport NASCAR keeps getting swallowed up by the earthquake of people leaving. Whether it’s ratings down, drivers retiring or sponsors bailing departures become the real story.

Hendrick and Johnson were quick to claim they’re not going anywhere. If there are a team and driver that can weather the storm, it’s them; HMS has done a yeoman’s job at staying fully sponsored. But old favorite Axalta (think: DuPont and Gordon) bailed them out when Farmers left the No. 5 at the end of 2017. New blood and new backers have to be found this time for a veteran that may be in top physical shape but is showing his age on the racetrack.

Long-term, Johnson could easily recover and win that eighth title, just like NASCAR thinks it’s headed back in the right direction. But until they get a corporation to believe in them, shouting their love from the rooftops it’s a moot point. Sports is a business, after all, and these news bites give the impression that business isn’t exactly booming as of late.

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s resurgence in popularity rests in part on another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Chase Elliott. But Elliott, who along with Kyle Larson have been the only Chevrolet wheelmen without shouting distance of Kevin Harvick, got hit with an L1 penalty Wednesday for a rear suspension violation. Elliott lost 25 driver points, HMS lost 25 owner points and car chief Josh Kirk is suspended for the next two races. HMS says they’ll appeal.

It’s the latest chapter in a career that, to date, leaves Elliott winless. He’s now gone 81 Cup starts without a victory despite 922 laps led and 14 podium finishes. That means once out of every six races, Elliott has run third or better and he still hasn’t found his way to Victory Lane.

So many have compared the young driver to his dad, Awesome Bill, who won in his 116th career start. I’d say the Hall of Famer’s career still turned out OK.

But Elliott’s career is also an anomaly. Take a look at when these Hall of Fame drivers won their first career Cup race.

Richard Petty: 35th career start

David Pearson: 31st

Jeff Gordon: 42nd

Darrell Waltrip: 50th

Bobby Allison: 29th

Cale Yarborough: 78th

Jimmie Johnson: 13th

Dale Earnhardt: 16th

Rusty Wallace: 72nd

Chase Elliott: 0 for 81

Elliott’s also a step back from fellow “young guns” he came up the ranks with who’ve already won. Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher have already cashed in; Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon have made major strides. Joey Logano, just a few years older at age 27 is a bona fide title contender.

Sure, Elliott’s come close. But when do we get to a point where close doesn’t cut it? Hard to make the bridesmaid the star of the wedding, right? It’s a window of opportunity for both Elliott and NASCAR that may be closing. Most high-level stick-and-ball coaches nowadays get about three years to win before high expectations turn to impatience.

Elliott is in the midst of year three. The pressure to perform for him couldn’t be higher.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • Harvick goes for four straight wins Sunday at a track where he’s been runner-up twice in the last three years. And remember the Fontana race years ago where Harvick should have won only to fall victim to a flat tire late? It feels like this track owes him one and the No. 4 team has plenty of momentum. Watch out.
  • After a wild and crazy Daytona the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has exactly one multi-car accident in the last three races. Do you need crashes to keep fans watching? No. In fact, I’d argue Sunday might have been one of the best Cup races ever put on at Phoenix. But after a rough-and-tumble start at the restrictor-plate race, NASCAR has cleaned up its act on the racetrack.
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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25 comments

  1. Avatar

    Even if Johnson was running up front and contending for wins every week, if there aren’t as many eyes watching on TV or people at the track then the value Lowes is getting for sponsoring the car is diminished. I think this has less to do with Johnson’s lower productivity on the track and more to do with lower ratings and attendance.

    And if “Right now is a moment, then where NASCAR CEO Brian France needs to lead.” is true, the sport is in big trouble because he is a piss poor leader.

  2. Avatar

    And no one addresses the fact that 90% of the problems with NASCAR are self-inflicted. Everyone just talks around the problems.

  3. Avatar

    God damn, every freaking year this clown mentions Logano’s age! And he is always wrong. Logano is 27 years old.. NOT 28!!!!!!!!!!! NOT 28!!!!.AUSTIN DILLON, RICKY STENTHOUSE and OTHERS ARE OLDER THAN HE!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yet he has accomplished so much more!!!! Every freaking goddamn year, the age in this clowns mind is always OLDER to fit a narrative of the not so successful “YOUNGER IN HIS MIND” drivers. Can’t make this crap up. It astounds! The mediocrity in this world void of fact checking is truly one of the hallmarks of a society going down, not up! What a putz. Must have been flustered as I always think the SOY BOYS at Starbucks screwed up this one’s order. SMH.

    • Tom Bowles

      KB, I honestly feel bad for you sometimes that you get this flustered and have to spew hate over such a minor tweak (Logano is currently 27 years, 9+ months). Sure, Austin Dillon is older than Logano…by about a month. I think that puts them in the same age range.

      What is wrong with your life that you have to spend it being so cruel to others?

      • Avatar

        Facts, Facts, Facts. Your prose is always off. Sorry, sick of lies not being facts, or even thought as facts…You are the king of it and it pisses me off, OK? The narrative is always there to suit you! Get it right. By what you claim, especially when it comes to age, puts a lie and a spin on something that is not true in what you write. Especially with the “youth movement”. BS. Get it? Sure you don’t. Never mind. Pesky facts, PFFFTTTTTT. You wrote it, in your mind maybe you didn’t mean it, but it does put a different spin on the names you mention in your articles. Facts do matter…..

    • Matt

      Aging okl hippie intervention. Test, test. Dust off this dusty old six string just one more time…….
      Take a good look around and if you’re lookin’ down
      Put a little love in your heart
      I hope when you decide kindness will be your guide
      Put a little love in your heart
      And the world will be a better place
      And the world will be a better place for you and me
      You just wait and see
      Put a little love in your heart
      Put a little love in your heart

      Yep, it;s a classic tune not just used for selling soft drinks anymore

    • Avatar

      AND Harvick is the oldest driver, not Johnson. Facts in today’s world are becoming a stretch.

      • Avatar

        Johnson DOB = Sept 17, 1975
        Harvick DOB = Dec 8, 1975

        That makes Johnson older as he will turn 43 in Sept while Harvick has to wait an eternal 82 days before he turns 43.
        (Unless Wikipedia is wrong)

        • Avatar

          Your right, sorry. I used racing reference and still inverted it in my head. I had thought Harvick was 9 months older.

  4. Avatar

    i know a year or two i went into a lowes and there was lowe/johnsons stuff around, and none of the employees in the store knew anything about nascar or johnson. and i live west of atlanta, ga.

  5. Avatar

    Nascar has to take the major share of responsibility for its diminishing attraction to major sponsors. The cost of sponsoring a competitive Monster Energy Cup car is astronomical. The so called leadership of Nascar doesn’t help with the constant tinkering of car design and rule changes. The term ‘stock car” is totally irrelevant since these modern examples racing show little resemblance to production cars.

    The leadership continues to tighten the rules in such a way that it makes creativity and ingenuity impossible. Every time a creative team comes up with a competitive advantage Nascar slams them with a major penalty and changes a rule. They have also tinkered with the format and points system to such an extent that it is becoming more and more remote from it’s roots. And they wonder why they are losing their core fan base. Nascar in its attempt to attract a younger fan base has not considered the fact that modern youth favor the instant gratification of electronic entertainment and find it boring and impossible to endure 3 to 4 hours of the typical Nascar event

    • Avatar

      the teams are largely to blame for the exponential increase in cost. Why? Because for those who can attract the sponsorship it works on several levels. And they have no interest in dividing the pie further so that they get a smaller slice.

  6. Avatar

    Brian France’s reign of error is starting to explode in his face….

  7. Avatar

    What’s the cost of a top flight indy car by comparison? Yes, I could google it. But I’m lazy (and at work).

  8. Avatar

    Comparing Chase Elliott’s winless start to his father’s run of 116 races before winning is comparing an apple to a crescent wrench. Bill Elliott started out in an unsponsored car with nothing on it but the number nine, drove the rig from race to race along with his brothers and slept six guys in one motel room, worked on the car himself because he couldn’t afford to hire mechanics… How long was it after he got the big money from Coors before he won a race? Oh wait, he won his first race in 1983, BEFORE Coors came along with the big money in 1984.

    Chase came into Cup racing with the top team and was put into the seat of the car that had been driven by a four-time Cup champion.

  9. Avatar

    Is that sound we hear Brian France whistling by the graveyard? Sure hope not.

  10. Avatar

    Harvick is the oldest driver, not Jimmie. I agree with your Chase rant. Check Jimmies stats. He hasn’t done well since less horsepower and lighter cars.came into play. I’m a IN can from way back. I argued for him for ROY over one lap wonder Newman. I had that right then too. I gotta say, you can’t even put Joeys name into the Ricky and Dillon equation. Logan is younger and way better than they will ever be.
    Hey, who is betting the 43 car will finish on the lead lap this week, not me.

  11. Avatar

    It seems to me to be a case of reverse free agency. Instead of the driver trying to get the best deal from the team, the team is trying for the best deal from a driver.

  12. Avatar

    By the by… Lest any of you to young to know… Lowes came in with RCR in 97 with Mike Skinner. Oh the good old days!

    • Avatar

      And before that they were on Brett Bodine’s Junior Johnson racing #11 Thunderbird.

      The loss of Lowe’s is significant since this is a company from the heart of NASCAR country. They started out in North Wilkesboro, NC and are now headquartered in Mooresville, NC.

    • Avatar

      Ooooo, and I forgot about Lowe’s being on the #2 driven by David Pearson filling in for Earnhardt. That was even a recent Darlington throwback paint scheme.

  13. Avatar

    Don’t forget at one time Lowe’s was also spending several million dollars a year for the naming rights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It seems a lot more recent than 2009 when they chose not to renew that sponsorship.