With Lowe’s leaving Jimmie Johnson after this season, it spells the end of an era in corporate sponsors being synonymous with a driver.
Goodwrench – Dale Earnhardt Sr… DuPont – Jeff Gordon… Miller Lite – Rusty Wallace… Lowe’s – Jimmie Johnson… just a few of the iconic partnerships from a NASCAR that once was. A time when sponsors became part of the team for a driver’s career. You can’t picture Jeff Gordon without seeing a DuPont multi-colored #24 car. Just like you can’t picture Dale Earnhardt Sr. without a black Goodwrench #3.
When I go to Lowe’s with my wife and kids, we make sure to grab the shopping cart with a plastic race car front-end for the kids to jump in. They take a hold of the wheel pretending to drive as we push the cart around the store. It has a “48” on the doors, because how could it not? Jimmie Johnson and Lowe’s have been synonymous with each other for 18 years, and after this year, it ends in startling fashion – leaving Johnson without a sponsor… and possibly worse, an identity.
NASCAR doesn’t want to see this right now, considering it arrives at the doorstep of the winningest active driver in the series with a hall-of-fame career and record-tying seven championships alongside the untouchables of the sport, Petty and Earnhardt.
Jimmie Johnson is the last remaining speck of the Golden Era of NASCAR. Yes, you could throw Kevin Harvick in there, but he isn’t the same caliber as a Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr… only Johnson is. He stands alone today in the garage among a few veterans of the sport, a massive horde of young talent, and not enough cars on Sunday to fill the field.
The sponsorship for most in NASCAR today are race to race. Businesses with more regional focus around the tracks they sponsor the cars at. I’ve recently heard Jeff Gordon on a broadcast mention Kyle Larson is probably the most similar to him of the new generation of drivers… yet Larson can’t secure a year long primary sponsor after losing Target last year (which I still feel was a perfect brand fit). Drivers like Larson may very well be the future, but a brand to be synonymous with, will be unlikely (for now).
For Jimmie Johnson, he came into the sport with Lowe’s, and sadly, he won’t be leaving it with them. Johnson has two years left on his contract with Hendrick Motorsports and from the outside looking in, he doesn’t look too concerned. The day before and day of the news, Johnson posted pictures from Colorado on a ski and mountain bike trip. An area of the country he’s been spending a lot of time.
To make a comparison of this moment: Jimmie Johnson is like the last band to “make it” before free music downloads became a thing. He has made money when the getting was good, and at a time when you could still make a ton of money selling records. It isn’t the same for these younger guys, although they’re making great money, probably no one will ever see the amount of money Jimmie Johnson has gotten paid to race a race car.
By all accounts I can find, Johnson has a guaranteed $19.2 million/year deal that extends into 2020. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick are the other highest paid, trailing $5-6 million/year behind him; and even those deals feel like they’ll be hard to get again.
The point of this article? It’s become increasingly difficult to get sponsors on board in NASCAR and become committed to building brand equity together – driver/team and business. What was once commonplace in doing business in NASCAR has become a few remaining examples, and with this news for an active living legend, it’s truly haunting for the future of the sport.
I wait in anticipation for how Hendrick Motorsports handles this off-season finding a sponsor to help bankroll Johnson’s big salary and premium team. The direction of NASCAR may weigh in the balance…
What do you think? Leave a comment below.