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Looking for the right fit with next Cup Series sponsor not easy

Sponsorship activation is about much more than signage at the track. Jason O. Watson/USA TODAY Sport

NASCAR continues its search for a series sponsor to replace Sprint in 2017. It needs to find a sponsor that fits its brand and one where it can make it work for a company likely spending at least $50 million a year on the sport.

It's a hard sell but the pulse in the garage is that NASCAR has made progress with some interested companies in the automotive industry and electronics sectors. The timing is about right for negotiations to start getting serious but also with prospective sponsors taking their time to analyze current television ratings, attendance and the post-Jeff Gordon vibe (and now political endorsements of the NASCAR CEO).

Wherever NASCAR ends up, the series sponsor must have major coin to spend. The new five-year sanctioning agreements require that the sponsor gets the series logo in various spots around the facility, and then the sponsor would negotiate a deal with the track for an additional presence for displays, hospitality and a suite. The biggest prize out there? The central entrance to the Daytona International Speedway grandstands still doesn't have a sponsor attached to it.

With such a huge spend in advertising and promoting the sport, not to mention the millions that go into the $21 million NASCAR end-of-season points fund, NASCAR can't afford to not have a sponsor. It's something that puts pressure on NASCAR to get a deal done, and NASCAR could very well have to decide to go with a three-year or five-year deal instead of the 10-year deal it landed with Nextel (later Sprint) back in 2003.

As NASCAR seeks a sponsor, another racing series -- albeit one without the weekly national television package and whose tracks don't have the capacity of Sprint Cup tracks -- seems to have found a perfect fit.

When Craftsman, the former sponsor of NASCAR's truck series, wanted to get back into auto racing, it wanted to do it at the grassroots level. It found just the place in the World of Outlaws sprint-car and late model series.

Dean Schwartz, a Sears vice president who oversees tools, said 80 percent of the World of Outlaws fans are tool users, and many of them use those tools on cars. The company's Craftsman Club members, who already are big Craftsman customers, have a passion for motorsports. The combination of those who actually participate in the series using the product as well as the ability for Craftsman to activate locally at stores in markets where Sprint Cup doesn't go made this a great fit for both.

The World of Outlaws doesn't have big television numbers (CBS Sports Network televises some events) but it has a passionate fan base that will drive three hours for a night of racing.

"The opportunity of other motorsports series came up, and we spent most of our due diligence around the World of Outlaws because we thought it was the perfect fit," Schwartz said. "For us, from a tools perspective, it's really that grass roots. ... The folks that race the vehicles and work on the vehicles and also watch the races are heavy tool users.

"That's what attracted us more than anything."

The World of Outlaws has about 130 events a year between its two series, and the organization handles all of the activation at the track. That is something NASCAR can't do -- whoever sponsors the Cup Series will need an agency to handle the creation and mobility of displays at major events across the country and likely an advertising agency to help create ad campaigns.

While it might be strange to see a NASCAR driver at a Sprint store -- the drivers often make appearances at the big-box stores of their sponsors or for NASCAR at a Wal-Mart -- it would be natural to have a driver or team member of the World of Outlaws talking about tools in the Craftsman section at a Sears.

The series runs at Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare, California, this week. A Sears store sits fewer than nine miles away. When at Beaver Dam Raceway in Wisconsin, it takes minutes to get to the Sears in a mall three miles away. That is grass roots.

It makes perfect sense for both the league and the sponsor, which obviously pays nowhere near what it takes to support Sprint Cup. Not selling tickets in the market? Do a program at the Sears store a few miles away where a local family can buy a tool and get some tickets.

Maybe the most amazing part of this whole thing is that the World of Outlaws didn't panic when its deal with STP ran out in 2014, leaving 2015 as an unsponsored season. Unlike NASCAR where the sponsorship centers on finances and promotions, for a series such as World of Outlaws, it's more about sharing customers and promoting their products to people who could have an interest.

"We really weren't in a position where we had to have a sponsor," WoO CEO Brian Carter said last month as the World Of Outlaws raced at Volusia Speedway Park near Daytona, Florida. "We worked the last nine months to create a really good partnership. It's good for us, and it's good for Craftsman."

While on an obviously different level, that has to be the goal for NASCAR -- land a deal that is good for both the series and the sponsor and one that can potentially energize the grass roots in NASCAR.

The Sprint Cup Series is in a transition, especially with several of its stars closer to retirement than their rookie seasons. NASCAR needs to take the time to find a sponsor that drivers and teams can rally behind and work for in a way that allows the drivers to engage fans and make the sponsor willing to re-up after its initial deal is over.