With Craftsman pulling the plug, door opens for new brand sponsorship

Updated: August 14, 2008, 3:58 PM ET

AP Photo/Garry Jones

Truck windshields won't carry Craftsman banners for the first time since the series' inception in 1995.

Search continues for Truck Series title sponsor

Crunch time isn't too far away for teams in the Craftsman Truck Series, with next week's race at Bristol marking 10 to go on the season. It might be safe to say crunch time is already here with NASCAR's search for a new series sponsor.

Craftsman, a division of Sears, Roebuck and Co., announced late last year that it would not return as title sponsor, the only one the Truck Series has known since its 1995 inception. The start of the post-Craftsman era officially begins in six months, but a sponsor has not emerged.

Another tool manufacturer, Lowe's Kobalt Tools, was reported for much of the summer to be the front-runner, but dropped out in recent weeks.

"We felt that in fairness to NASCAR -- with whom we've had a long, positive relationship -- we should reach out to them and let them know our plans to concentrate on our core initiatives in the sport, rather than taking on an additional opportunity," said Chris Ahearn, vice president of public relations for Lowe's Companies Inc.

Other companies that sources said looked closely at the Truck Series were Old Spice, before committing to Tony Stewart's new Sprint Cup team, and the U.S. Army, which ran into conflicts due to the multiyear commitment NASCAR prefers in its title sponsors (usually five years or more).

NASCAR isn't back to square one in its search, but it is finding the proceedings slow in the current economy. Its asking price for entitlement is believed to be in the $5 million to $7 million range per year.

"There is strong interest in title sponsorship of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and we are meeting with potential partners. NASCAR is focused on finding the best partner to continue to grow a series that's important to the sport and our fans," said Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's director of communications. "Certainly, the challenging economy has caused some executives to be more deliberate with major sponsorship decisions.

"We feel very good about this unique opportunity for a company to garner $90 million in annual brand exposure with the No. 3-rated motorsports series on cable TV. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck series is strong and growing -- household viewership is up 23 percent this year, and has increased 53 percent over the past five years -- and presents a significant marketing platform."

With that platform, marketers say, NASCAR is eager to land a sponsor, but the lack of one so far doesn't raise a black flag on the series.

"I don't read anything into that from a sign of the sport, it's just the economy's bad. It's not the world's greatest time to be the marketplace looking for a long-term, multimillion-dollar deal," said Zak Brown, CEO and founder of Just Marketing, an Indianapolis-based marketing group with various motorsports clients. "All they can do, which is what I know they're doing, is just keep their head down and keep trying.

"In a perfect world, you know what you're doing financially, partnerwise, as soon as possible. They'd ideally like to be in activation mode, right now, gearing up with the new sponsor. I also think they have the discipline that if they wanted to have a deal done at any costs, they would have had a deal done. They'll be eager, but they won't be desperate. There is a difference between the two. NASCAR doesn't get desperate, they don't need to be desperate. They'll wait until they find the right overall package, but I'm sure they're in deal mode more today than five months ago."

Where might that deal lead? Brown said the likely candidates remain companies that would fit the rugged, masculine image of the Truck Series, not unlike the current sponsor, Craftsman. One of his clients -- UPS, a company famous for its trucks -- is said to be intrigued and looking at the series.

Yet an announcement appears to still be weeks away, leaving fans, teams and manufacturers in a wait-and-see mode to discover which company will carry the Truck Series into the next decade.

"Our assumption is that there will be a replacement sponsor contracted within the next two to three months, that's the assumption we're operating under," said Les Unger, national motorsports manager for Toyota. "The series is still extremely popular. I think there are opportunities for a potential sponsor to jump in with both feet."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Skinner signed to help MWR

Mike Skinner

Skinner

Toyota Sprint Cup teams apparently have Mike Skinner on speed dial. For the second time this season, the 1995 truck champion has been signed to "evaluate" a struggling team -- in other words, use his qualifying ability to put a nonexempt car into a race.

Skinner, fifth in truck points with Bill Davis Racing, made five starts earlier this season for Red Bull Racing, driving the No. 84 Camry in place of AJ Allmendinger. The second-year Cup driver had failed to qualify for the first three races of the year, but Skinner put the car in the field for the next five.

This week he was signed to run the next three races for Michael Waltrip Racing and the No. 00 of Michael McDowell, currently 36th in owner points and needing to qualify on speed.

"I know it's tough for drivers like Michael McDowell when they make the big jump to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series from other divisions like the ARCA Series or the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, but Michael has done a really good job for MWR in a sport that's fiercely competitive," Skinner said. "I look forward to us working together."

Ironically, if Skinner fares well and puts the No. 00 back into the top 35, it could be at the expense of the No. 84. Allmendinger, though driving well lately with four consecutive top-20s, is on the bubble spot in 35th, eight points ahead of the No. 00.

Streaking Benson sets records

With his win Saturday at Nashville, points leader Johnny Benson became the fifth driver to win three consecutive races in a season, joining Skinner, Ron Hornaday, Todd Bodine and Greg Biffle. He also has four wins in five starts, a feat not seen since Biffle did it in his 2000 championship season.

Still, the Bill Davis Racing veteran's 45-point lead over Hornaday in the standings is the smallest at this time since 2003, when Brendan Gaughan led Travis Kvapil by seven points. Kvapil won his next race, at Bristol, and eventually the title.

Benson is the defending champion at Bristol and would become the first driver to win four straight races should he conquer the half-mile bullring on Aug. 20.

Bodine, Germain Racing penalized again

For the second time this season, the Germain Racing No. 30 Toyota driven by Todd Bodine has been penalized for a nonconforming truck. NASCAR announced Wednesday that postrace inspection at Nashville discovered the No. 30 to have a right-side bed panel height above the mandated 39.5 inches. Crew chief Mike Hillman Jr. was fined $2,500, owner Stephen Germain was penalized 25 owners' points and Bodine was penalized 25 championship points, dropping him from fourth to sixth behind Mike Skinner and Erik Darnell. Bodine finished third in the race.

The team was also penalized after its season-opening win at Daytona, when prequalifying inspection revealed devices on the rear spoiler installed in an attempt to reduce the bed panel height to pass inspection. The team was socked with 25-point owner and driver penalties, and Hillman was fined $10,000 and suspended for four events. Germain appealed and lost.

Spare parts

Make a note of next week's unusual race day -- Wednesday. The midweek race at Bristol will not lack for star power, with Jimmie Johnson making his first truck start in the No. 81 Chevrolet of Randy Moss Motorsports and Cup points leader Kyle Busch returning to the No. 51 Billy Ballew Motorsports Toyota. Scott Speed, the current ARCA points leader and a truck winner earlier this year at Dover, Del., will also run Bristol for his first truck start since June. … Chrissy Wallace's next start for Germain Racing will be Sept. 6 at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis.

Standings