Final ride emblematic of NASCAR's year

The Sprint Cup Series enters the final race of the season this weekend with just three points separating the top two drivers. The race in Homestead, Fla., will mark an exciting end to what’s been a bounce-back season for NASCAR.

Overall viewership of cup races is up 10 percent, with all three national series showing an increase over last year, according to Nielsen. In perhaps sports television’s most-prized demographic, males age 18-34, viewership for the Sprint Cup Series is up 19 percent.

NASCAR signed five new “Official Partners” this year, and four existing partners renewed deals, including Goodyear, Bank of America, Kraft and UPS. NASCAR officials also boast about having more Fortune 100 companies involved at all levels of sponsorships and partnerships than any other sport.

But not all of the sponsorship news has been positive. UPS renewed its partnership-level sponsorship but downgraded its team sponsorship with Roush Fenway Racing from a primary sponsor of David Ragan’s No. 6 car to an associate sponsor of current points leader Carl Edwards’ No. 99 car. UPS was the first company to make a driver the face of its brand with its multiyear deal with Dale Jarrett, but the company recently spent a hefty sum on collegiate athletics through a partnership with IMG.

UPS’s adjustment in team sponsorship is illustrative of a recent NASCAR trend: an increasing number of sponsors want only a small piece of the car.

“I think our teams are doing well,” said NASCAR’s Jim O’Connell, chief sales officer. “The marketplace is still challenging. Marketing budgets have been cut at companies, and now those companies want more assets for their investment.”

NASCAR has put an industry relations business unit in Charlotte, where many teams have their home bases, to assist teams in finding sponsorship opportunities. The unit helps teams with everything from being on calls with sponsors to introducing them to NASCAR partners. NASCAR requires all Official Partners to be involved elsewhere in the sport and maintain certain levels of spending. “We want to be sure the whole NASCAR ecosystem is healthy,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell says NASCAR’s overall sponsor retention rate remains high. According to a recent survey conducted by consumer agency Taylor, 54 percent of fans would buy a sponsor’s product over a competing product, with 11 percent doing so even if the price were higher.

Yet even in NASCAR’s bounce-back year there have been some troubles. Several drivers still don’t have sponsors for next year, including Ragan and fellow Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth, who is losing his primary sponsor, Crown Royal, despite having three wins this season.

New team sponsors are still coming into the sport, however, with four new sponsors at the Sprint Cup level announced this year: Quicken Loans, Farmer’s Insurance, Outback Steakhouse and AARP. In addition, current team sponsors 5-Hour Energy and Dollar General have increased their spending in order to move up to the Sprint Cup level.