NASCAR’s Big Names Looking for Sponsors

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.

Earnhardt is one of the lucky drivers that can afford to be picky in the race for cash.

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.

Not even NASCAR’s biggest stars are immune from the economic pinch that plagues a sport dependent on Fortune 500 dollars.

Also, 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.

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. Still, challenges remain.

ESPN’s ratings from the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway were down 25 percent from 2011, the most-viewed race in network history. Ratings were down or flat for all 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races last season.

Earnhardt Racing president Steve Lauletta said ratings are just one slice of a successful sponsorship puzzle.

“When people see TV ratings are lower than they were, and attendance lower than they were, it doesn’t mean it’s still not a viable place, because it is,” he said. “You just have to think differently. We just have to be more creative and figure out ways to deliver value.”