NASCAR’s so-called “Silly Season” is mainly talk about drivers leaving, signing back on, or new talent coming up from the lower tier series. Familiar faces return to their current rides, or some teams expand to include new drivers that are ready for that next challenge.
So why is it that the one change that is coming in the sport…hasn’t been discussed?
In 2004, the Cup Series changed it’s title. After over 30 years in the sport, R.J. Reynold’s Tobacco saw it’s tenure as title sponsor for Cup competition come to an end. In all, 15 different men could say they were champion in that time span, a who’s who among the greats in the sport.
Enter…Nextel Communications. At the same time, enter a new way to determine the champion, the Chase.
Four years later, Sprint bought out Nextel, and the title series went from being the Nextel Cup Series, where it’s champions were Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, and what began the domination of Jimmie Johnson, to the Sprint Cup Series.
There were four different Chase setups in that time, including the current Grid, but a lot of new input and fan interaction that came of it.
Johnson, Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch each have claimed titles with Sprint’s name on the checkered flag trophy. Come Homestead this year, a past champion or a new name will be added to this list. But when that checkered flag falls, Sprint too will say goodbye after a total of 18 seasons as the lead sponsor in the sport.
With the finale closing in, there is a mystery that remains. Who is taking over?
The key thing with title sponsorship, it cannot just be for a few seasons and gone. NHRA has seen title sponsors change over the last few years, but the company backing the change is the same. What was the Full Throttle and Rockstar NHRA Drag Racing Series is now the same name, just with Mello Yello. It’s all the same, simply because Coca-Cola produces both products.
NASCAR is in the same situation, but exactly who could be a title sponsor in this series?
The second-tier series has technology as the lead, with Xfinity leading the way. The trucks have outdoors in mind with Camping World. Two completely different sponsors, but each committed to making the series better. Each has been at the front of some new additions to each series. The “Dash 4 Cash” and the addition of Eldora can be considered each series’ crowning accomplishment in recent years, and now each can say they have a Chase.
In order for the Cup Series to be successful, there needs to be a company willing to be there for a long while.
What exactly is NASCAR looking for to fill the big gap that Sprint will leave? One guarantee is that the title sponsor can’t be one that is also sponsoring a team. R.J. Reynolds had a “Team Winston” for a while, but faded away. A current sponsor of a Cup car cannot be an option simply for conflict of interest. It needs to be a neutral company.
At the same time, it would create more controversy as when Alltel and Circular were in the sport. When Circular was bought out by AT&T, then-driver Jeff Burton swapped the logo on the team’s car. But, the problem was that Circular was grandfathered into the sport as a sponsor, and was allowed to continue until the agreement ran out for the team, to which a new sponsor was needed. Due to AT&T not being on the agreement, Nextel wouldn’t let the logos run. So, the team still got the sponsor money, but were barred from showing who it was from. Eventually, Nextel balked, and the logos returned.
The same was consistent with Alltel, as they were bought by Verizon. Penske Racing let the sponsorship stay on both the Cup car and the then-Nationwide car, but only the Nationwide team could use Verizon as the sponsor.
So, who else could be involved?
This is the challenge for NASCAR, it needs to make sure it’s a sponsor that fans new, old, and future can relate to. But it cannot be something that is so out of the norm, that it makes fans not tune in, or make them lose more interest.
Whomever is tasked to take over as the title sponsor has major shoes to fill, and is coming off three seasons of intense action, and some controversy alongside it.
Who is it? When will NASCAR make that reveal? How long will the agreement be?
All these questions will need answered, possibly during the Chase, or once the season has come to it’s conclusion. In any case, NASCAR’s grand mystery continues.