August 9, 2017 / By Trisha Pena
Earlier this year, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he would be retiring from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. This comes just two years after Dale Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports superstar teammate Jeff Gordon resigned, which brings up the question: what happens when a team loses a star driver?
It’s no secret that NASCAR teams often struggle to secure enough sponsorship to fill a full 35+ NASCAR schedule. And when a team loses high-profile drivers like Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon, they don’t just lose talent, but more times than not, they lose sponsorship dollars.
With rumors swirling about additional high-profile retirements in the future, we look at the options race teams have when a prized seat in a car becomes available:
The team can pull talent from the NASCAR XFINITY Series (comparable to Triple-A for MLB), and in a perfect scenario, the driver’s sponsors from that series would make the jump to the Cup level at the same time. We saw this play out with Hendrick Motorsports, Chase Elliott, and NAPA Auto Parts after Jeff Gordon departed the No. 24 Chevrolet. NAPA was able to maintain consistency, authenticity and on-track success with Elliott, who won the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship and continues to reap the rewards with him on and off the track. It is still possible for a team to pull a young driver up to its Cup roster with no sponsor attached, but convincing a sponsor or new brand to commit to spending upwards of millions of dollars without a proven track record of success in today’s sponsorship environment is a challenge, to say the least.
Another option for a team would be to sign a driver from other teams that may or may not be in a contract year to fill the empty seat. This would be an option to consider if a team has a sponsor willing to stay on board, but requests a driver with a similar level of talent/star power as the departing driver. We’ve seen this strategy many times over the years when a team needs to have an experienced driver on the roster to be more appealing for a certain type of sponsor. If the team is out searching for sponsorship commitments, it is often easier to sell-in an experienced driver with impressive career stats at the Cup level and an established social media presence. Obviously, this is the “safer” route as ROI scrutiny across all sports sponsorships is at an all-time high.
It’s also possible for the reverse to happen: a driver brings his / her sponsor to the team. This is an area that really sets motorsports apart from other professional sports leagues because a driver doesn’t necessarily have to be ranked among the best in the sport to be considered for a ride IF they are able to bring sponsorship dollars to the table. Whether it’s family money or just a brand that is committed to the driver, this makes it easier for the team from a financial perspective. But on-track success is what every team and sponsor are looking for with a driver.
Sometimes dreams come true, and a team takes a gamble on a driver that they believe in and gives them a shot to prove themselves in the big leagues. This is actually how Jimmie Johnson was discovered. Jimmie didn’t have the most stellar stats in the now-XFINITY series, but Jeff Gordon believed in his talent and convinced team owner Rick Hendrick to hire him. Lowe’s jumped on board with Johnson and the No. 48 team early on and they have been able to make history together – the best possible scenario for all parties.
There are so many variables involved from team to driver to sponsor, which is why NASCAR’s Silly Season so exciting and unpredictable.