DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For sale! Made-for-TV premium ad space on the hood of the car of NASCAR’s most popular driver.
Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. has coveted sponsorship up for grabs. In fact, his No. 88 Chevrolet lacks a primary sponsor for about one-third of the 36 Sprint Cup races this season.
The perfect corporate sponsorship has yet to materialize for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. Both are preaching patience, believing the right deal will eventually fall into place, and not a dire sign that big business has soured on NASCAR.
“We’re just looking for the right corporations that are a good fit for us, that are long-term, that want to be in the sport for a while,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t just take the first guy that comes along.”
But Hendrick is not alone when it comes to teams still trying to make all the sponsor pieces fit for a season that opens with Sunday’s Daytona 500. Stewart-Haas Racing – owned and operated by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart – has about 20 races spread out over three cars that need a top sponsor.
Earnhardt’s sponsorship dried up when Pepsi, through Diet Mountain Dew and Amp, sliced its sponsorship from 20 races to five in 2013. Stewart-Haas lost the U.S. Army from Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Chevy and Office Depot is gone from Stewart’s No. 14. Danica Patrick came aboard this season with the potential of rare, full-season sponsorship from Go Daddy. Winning the Daytona pole only spiked the buzz among all the brands.
But walking down pit road is still like entering a Costco: chips and soda, oil and beer, car parts and fertilizer as far as you can see.
Drivers are hampered by NASCAR policy in some cases. Sprint’s exclusive naming rights deal for the Cup series eliminates other communications companies like AT&T from consideration, and big tobacco sponsorship money is no longer welcome in NASCAR.
Unlike other sports, where a fast food chain could become the official burger of multiple teams in the same league, there’s no crossover in Cup. Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon won’t both be driving with Lowe’s plastered on the car in the same race.