by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR commentary and driver pictures, 2012 NASCAR schedule, video, Bench Racing With Steve and Charlie
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.November 3, 2009 6:16 pm UTC No Comments
The sponsors of NASCAR teams are obligated to pay the bills in order to plaster their logos on the cars. They’re obligated to stick with a team through the length of their contract, for better or worse, and make the best of what the race team can provide them. But that doesn’t mean that when the situation is less than stellar and the contract is approaching its final year, the sponsor isn’t going to look for a quick out; they’ve also got an obligation to look for the greatest return on their investment.
Bass Pro Shops has been a major primary sponsor of a car in one of NASCAR’s top two series since 2003, when they debuted on the hood of Hank Parker Jr.’s Chance 2 Motorsports Chevrolet at a then-Busch Series race in Atlanta. They stuck with that team for the next two seasons, when they won championships with driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Bono Manion.
In 2006, the whole team moved up to the Cup series, and they made the Chase in 2007, with Truex taking his maiden Cup win at Dover. But in 2008 and 2009, the wheels started to fall off: the team failed to make the Chase again in 2008, it was forced to merge with Chip Ganassi‘s team in the offseason, and right now is mired at 24th in the standings, while teammate Juan Montoya challenges for victories week in and week out. In response, Bass Pro Shops has scaled back its sponsorship of the car, with a presumptive 26 races this season and only 20 next year.
Right now, that car is vacant for the 2010 season, with Truex heading to Michael Waltrip Racing to replace its namesake in their flagship car. New owner Ganassi wants to put Jamie McMurray in the car, out of a combination of history (McMurray never finished worse than 13th in points in three years spent with Ganassi) and “best available”; the sponsor isn’t so sure that McMurray fits their image.
In a FoxSports.com article, Lee Spencer mounts a weak defense for McMurray, saying that last week’s winner “will go above and beyond for his sponsors whether it’s Bass Pro or anyone else.” Duh. Name me one successful driver this side of Stroker Ace who hasn’t.
Former champion Bobby Labonte is available to Ganassi, and he fits the sponsor’s image much better, but two things stand in the way of that marriage: TRG Motorsports is working to keep him on board with their team, and Labonte is having the worst season of his illustrious career, lingering at 30th in points.
The other available drivers, Reed Sorenson and Casey Mears, are other Ganassi castoffs who never did anywhere near as much with that team in the past (or with other teams as of late) as McMurray did.
The other, more desirable option that Bass Pro Shops has is to find a way out of their contract with Ganassi and head to Stewart-Haas Racing, where they would fill out the gaps in the schedule on Ryan Newman‘s car left by the U.S. Army. It’s been an open secret for a while that the match makes a lot of sense; the sponsor occupies a B-pillar spot on owner Tony Stewart‘s car, they’ve had an association with him for years, and Stewart-Haas is a step up from Ganassi in almost every way.
Back in April, Hermie Sadler reported on SPEED that there is no “out” in Bass Pro Shops’ contract for the 2010 season, just a day after Fox Sports posted rumors of the sponsor switching teams due to a performance clause. But sometimes, ripping up a contract makes more sense for both sides.
Ganassi, through Target as well as his team’s other partners, could probably find enough sponsorship to field McMurray for the full season if Bass Pro Shops were to be let out of its contract. Before the merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc., Ganassi had a commitment from Target that would have allowed him to run two full-time cars in 2009. This year, Target and its partners combined to sponsor 18 races for Truex and Aric Almirola, besides the full schedule for Montoya (who had other Target partners on his car for four races).
Running a two-car Target program in Sprint Cup could work similarly to Ganassi’s IndyCar Series program with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. This year, Dixon drove a Target car all season, while Franchitti’s car carried a multiplicity of sponsors who marketed through Target for the majority of the year.
It’s hard to convince an existing sponsor to expand its support in this economy, but given Target’s 20 years with Ganassi, McMurray’s solid history with the team, and the fact that his personality fits Target’s marketing programs much better than those of a hunting outlet, it seems only plausible. That would then free up Bass Pro Shops to fill out Newman’s schedule, strengthening Stewart’s new team even further.
Of course, this only works out as well as it does when you keep the monetary figures away – I don’t know that a buyout would be worth it for either Ganassi or Bass Pro Shops, or that Target would really be willing to expand its Sprint Cup participation. But for the sponsors, being involved in racing requires a return on the money they’ve invested. The way that things stand right now, everybody stands to be more successful if things get switched around.