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01/28 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs sponsor for 13 NASCAR races

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs sponsor for 13 NASCAR races

Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY

CONCORD, N.C. — Just three weeks from the start of Daytona Speedweeks, NASCAR’s biggest star is without sponsorship for nearly one-third of the season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for 10 consecutive years, still needs a sponsor for 13 of the 38 Sprint Cup Series races this year.  PepsiCo reduced its involvement with the team, which left a sponsorship void that has yet to be filled.  But how can that be?  Are companies so down on NASCAR that even Earnhardt can’t find funding?  That’s hardly the situation, according to officials at Hendrick Motorsports (which owns Earnhardt’s No. 88).  “You can take a short-term deal and fill the car up or you can try to work with someone who is going to be a long-term situation and is going to be there for years to come,” team owner Rick Hendrick said Wednesday during the Sprint Media Tour. “… I’m looking for the right deal, not any deal.”

One of Earnhardt’s sponsors, the National Guard, is increasing its involvement from 18 to 20 races this year. But Pepsi, which had its Diet Mountain Dew brand (16 races) and AMP Energy brand (four races) on the car last season, is only planning five Diet Dew-sponsored races in 2013.

Hendrick could fill the races with one-off sponsors, but prefers to find a partner who will commit to the team beyond this season. He declined to set a timetable for signing a deal, but indicated Earnhardt could enter the season with open inventory on the car.

“We’ve got two or three deals that are close,” Hendrick said. “We’re looking at beyond 2013, we’re looking at ’14 and ’15. So we haven’t put any line in the sand.”

Earnhardt rejected the idea his sponsorship availability is a sign of the sport’s continued struggles.

Penske Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing each announced new sponsorship deals Wednesday. However, three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart still has races to fill.

The financial climate in NASCAR is “on an upswing,” Earnhardt said, but it could also be “the tail end of the reset we had several years ago.”

“I think it’s the remnants of that, the fossils of that,” he said. “Once this is all kind of shored up, everything else seems to be headed in the right direction. … There seems to be a lot more excitement and attention and anticipation about this season, and hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.”

Earnhardt made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the fifth time this season. His best points finish since NASCAR went to the Chase format in 2004 is fifth — in 2004 and 2006.  Earnhardt has won one pole position this season — at Richmond International Raceway, the final Cup race before the Chase. He finished 14th.
Voted NASCAR’S most popular driver every year since 2003, Earnhardt enjoys an adoring fan base and always draws a roar from the crowd during driver introductions.
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet took over the Sprint Cup points lead July 29 after finishing fourth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It marked the first time Earnhardt had led the points in nearly eight years.   Earnhardt snapped a 143-race winless streak on June 17, when he won at Michigan International Speedway.
Many people in the sport thought the breakthrough was the beginning of a second-half season resurgence. Earnhardt said he thought the win ‘would be all relief, but it wasn’t relief at all. It was all excitement.’  When Earnhardt finally broke his winless streak, defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said “it’s not a national holiday.”
Marshall Carlson, the team’s president, said Earnhardt’s car was “pretty well set through the summer” — so there’s not an immediate need to secure sponsorship. Like Hendrick, he insisted there were short-term deals to be had but said that’s not what the team wanted.  “When you’ve got the opportunity and the time to make the right decisions for the long term, we’ve got to try that pathway first,” Carlson said.

Hendrick’s three other cars — Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 and Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 — are all fully funded for this season.

If the right sponsor can’t be found, is it possible Earnhardt would be forced to take a pay cut? That’s extremely unlikely, though the driver hinted he’d do whatever necessary to help the team.  “What Rick wants to pay me is up to Rick,” he said. “I’m going to work here regardless of what he pays me. I’m pretty sure he knows that.”