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I’ll take my sponsorship, and go elsewhere

There aren’t as many ‘big boys’ left in NASCAR, sponsorship-wise. Some of us remember the days when the rainbow colors of Dupont were the rage, or PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew machines would roar every racing Sunday.

There’s been no mass exodus, but sagging TV viewership has brought an investment pullback from some of the sport’s biggest and well-known paint schemes. According to Forbes magazine, for the top eight NASCAR teams (your Hendrick’s, Penske’s, Roush’s, and Gibbs’) their value is down 2 percent from last year; collectively, that’s nearly $160 million. Yep, they’re feeling it, too.

Miller Beer and Miller Lite – which once adorned racing rides from Bobby Allison to Rusty Wallace to now, Brad Keselowski – has been with Team Penske for nearly 30 years. This past winter they announced they would renew their sponsorship commitment, but they have scaled back from 24 races per season now to 11 upcoming.

Just at the end of last season, MillerCoors pulled out as ‘the official beer of NASCAR’. That opened the door for Anheuser-Busch to re-claim that title. The St. Louis-based brewer is back in the game as pole award sponsor (the old Busch Pole Award was a part of NASCAR’s rich legacy for over 30 years). Moreover, sponsorship of Kevin Harvick – the hottest driver of 2018 – continues for 16 Cup contests, or about half the season.

But look at the sponsors, big-names all, who’ve already pulled out: Dollar General, Target, Subway, General Mills, all within the last couple of years. Even title sponsor Monster Energy took a bit longer than anticipated before renewing its commitment.

But the one I never thought I’d see is Lowe’s pulling out on seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, which they say they intend to do after this year.

The home improvement company, that moved headquarters from North Wilkesboro to Mooresville, outside Charlotte, first teamed with Hendrick and Johnson back in 2001 when the driver was a nobody. Owner and company took a flyer, not to mention leap of faith, on Johnson because one of the hottest drivers of that time, Jeff Gordon, all but promised them that Johnson was going to be a star in this sport. Well, Gordon was right and Johnson got to be so good that Lowe’s couldn’t leave; the two, driver and sponsor, became almost synonymous.

But Lowe’s also signed on in the heady days when NASCAR was one of the hottest sports tickets around. A time when sponsors paid in the $20 million range, or more, just to get in the door with a top team. And there was no getting in part-way. A deal for an entire 36 race package, plus the two all-star events, could cost upward of $30 million per season.

Lowe’s also was skeptical about Johnson when Hendrick sold them on a full deal. The company had already hedged its bet by signing up for a smaller deal with Gordon just in case Johnson was a bust. That made sense, because Gordon was a four-time Cup champion and had won on every track at the time except Kentucky. But even if Lowe’s got in on the cheap with Johnson in 2001, the cash register was still going to ring and ring big, undoubtedly heading up as Johnson racked up his record-tying seven championships. All told, that’s 83 victories and a Hall of Fame career all while representing the Lowe’s brand the last 18 years.

How times have changed.

Still, there’s one thing car owner Rick Hendrick loves, and that’s a challenge. He’s going to seize this opportunity and run flat-out with it. After all, he’s got a 42-year-old driver signed up through the next three years that’s still a hot commodity.

Don’t close the book on NASCAR just yet, Lowe’s. Some of these hot-shot young gun drivers might make for a pretty cool cardboard-cutout you can set right between the Kobalt and the DeWalt tool aisles.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.