Sponsorship concerns headline NASCAR's summertime swing
NASCAR’s Silly Season, the name given to the sport’s free agent period typically revolves around driver and crew chief changes. But in 2018, a year when most big names are signed to long-term deals there’s a new, worrisome card shuffling the deck.
Two of the sport’s biggest corporate backers, Lowe’s and 5-hour ENERGY, have announced they’re leaving NASCAR after the season. Lowe’s has backed seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson since he entered the series in late 2001. In a world where full-time sponsors are near impossible to find they’ve rarely even shared the hood with anyone else.
Add in 5-hour ENERGY’s move and now reigning NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. is seeking 2019 sponsorship. While you can make a case Johnson’s on the back end of his career -- the No. 48 team remains winless this season -- Truex remains at his peak. Furniture Row Racing is nearly on pace to match their eight wins from last year, earning four victories while sitting third in the standings behind fellow title contenders Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
“You’d think with the success we’ve had, the last two years and how it went, we delivered on our end of the deal,” Truex said. “We gave them a lot of exposure, a lot of value in their sponsorship. You never know the reasons why people want to go do something different or advertise less in general. It’s hard to say.”
Truex didn’t want to make assumptions but NASCAR’s ratings and attendance this season haven’t helped his cause. While the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team has won three of the last six weeks, dominating last Saturday’s race at Kentucky, they’ve been doing it in front of fewer fans. Television ratings for that race dropped 19 percent to their lowest level since Kentucky debuted in the Cup Series back in 2011. Once an automatic winner in summertime sports ratings, NASCAR’s 1.3 in the Nielsens couldn’t beat regular season baseball coverage on FOX.
“I don’t know that I was surprised,” Truex added of 5-hour ENERGY’s decision. “They’ve been on the fence for a while. I wish it didn’t take as long as it did, it puts us in a tough spot now. [But] I’m not really worried. I think some good can come out of this.
“It’s not great timing, but I’ve got confidence in my team and what we’re doing. Committed to the team and trying to figure out how we can continue forward.”
Truex’s contract is also up at the end of this season but there’s every indication he’ll re-sign with FRR and Toyota. Johnson is also set at Hendrick through 2020. The question is whether they can pull in new companies to sponsor the sport after a flurry of high-profile departures in recent years. Target, Home Depot, Dollar General and AFLAC are just some of the many sponsors to jump ship.
It’s a healthy economy with full employment so it’s hard to pin those decisions on tightening the belts. In short, it should be NASCAR’s number one priority to find a way to turn the tide, getting fresh new backers to come on board. While it’s unlikely either driver remains unsponsored into 2019, a worst-case scenario has them grabbing one from another race team. And if that middle-tier team loses their backer, considering this sponsorship climate finding a replacement borders on the impossible.
That equals fewer competitive teams, less money and less movement; this Silly Season may provide us the fewest driver changes in several years. But at some point, NASCAR -- flush in TV cash and armed with a long list of their own official sponsors -- needs to figure out a way to spread the wealth that’s left.
26th Foxwoods Resort Casino 301
Time: 1 p.m. ET* (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
*The start time has been moved up due to the threat of rain in the forecast.
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
While Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have more wins and points this season it’s Truex holding the edge in NASCAR’s title chase. His Kentucky victory was on a 1.5-mile oval, the bread and butter of NASCAR’s postseason tracks. Truex was untouchable at those facilities last season and the No. 78 team seems to be hitting their stride once again in midsummer.
Through 19 races, Truex has one more win and six more top-5 finishes compared to this point last year. He’s won three times in the last six events while the Busch/Harvick duo has reached Victory Lane just once. Playoff points make it almost certain this trio is headed to Homestead-Miami; would you bet against the 2017 winner of that race once they get there?
Who’s at the Back: Darrell Wallace Jr.
NASCAR’s exciting rookie set expectations high with a runner-up finish in February’s season-opening Daytona 500. That was the best finish by an African-American on tour since Wendell Scott won at Jacksonville some 54 years ago.
But Wallace has been struggling through freshman growing pains ever since. A 14th at the Daytona July race was a disappointment at one of the few places his single-car No. 43 team can remain in contention for wins. A 27th at Kentucky last weekend was a letdown after he ran 11th in this car there last July. Overall, Wallace sits second in the Rookie of the Year race behind William Byron and will need a clear step up in performance to earn the award.
Multiple people in the sport, including Eldora track owner Tony Stewart, are clamoring for a Cup race on dirt this week. Wednesday’s Camping World Truck Series event at the track produced a near-photo finish after a thrilling battle between winner Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger. Adding such a race, of course, seems impossible until 2021 with the current slate of NASCAR tracks under contract through '20.
A bizarre story emerged this week about NASCAR teams trying to confuse the sport’s laser inspection system. A number of teams have painted a contrast of dark and light colors around the wheel wells in hopes of confusing the measurements of the sport’s Optical Scanning Station (OSS). NASCAR sources claim the move is equivalent to an old wives’ tale but teams feel it might trick the scanner into giving them more leeway on car measurements.
Testing on Charlotte’s ROVAL track caused multiple crashes this week as drivers attempted to figure out the road course. Ryan Blaney, Daytona winner Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and William Byron were among those who lost control with Blaney totaling his primary car. That’s caused concern among observers October’s first race could leave fabricators working overtime.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight stages won by Martin Truex Jr. at Kentucky Speedway. No one else has won a stage there since the Cup Series went to this current race format in 2017.
Races since Jimmie Johnson last visited Cup Series Victory Lane. (Dover, June 2017)
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Tired of starting the Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.? Try Denny Hamlin on for size. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota won here last spring and has six straight top-15 finishes at this 1.058-mile oval. He qualified near the front in a race that’s impossible to pass and has yet to win in 2018. Could this Sunday be his day?
Of the Big Three, it’s Busch who I’d start. He’s got two wins and six top-3 finishes in his last 10 New Hampshire starts. Busch has also pushed it too hard here and crashed a few times; however, those have typically been playoff races.
When will Daniel Suarez kick it into gear? The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has been mired in a sophomore slump while his three teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing get geared up for the NASCAR postseason. Suarez is on the outside looking in, going eight straight races without a top-10 finish, but New Hampshire offers an opportunity for redemption. He’s got two straight top 10s at the track and earned another two top 5s in NASCAR XFINITY Series competition.
Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon continues to struggle this season overall but he’s got four straight top-20 finishes at New Hampshire. Dillon has never run worse than 22nd there in eight career starts so you certainly could do much worse.
In his last 13 races at New Hampshire, A.J. Allmendinger has earned only one top-10 finish. At the same time, he’s never run lower than 23rd and has wound up a consistent performer in the 15th-to-20th-place range. To me, that’s the perfect spot for a lower-tier driver and the key to delivering a winning lineup. Trust the veteran’s consistency here.
What Vegas Thinks
Surprise, surprise! The Big Three are on the top of the charts here. Kyle Busch leads the way with 5/2 odds while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick are at 7/2.
What I Think
For once, another name breaks through in Victory Lane. Denny Hamlin goes back-to-back in July New Hampshire races while earning the first win of the year for his No. 11 FedEx Toyota.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)