NASCAR exec Steve Phelps confident Cup sponsorship search unfolding well

Sponsor activation in NASCAR is about a lot more than just plastering a company name on everything. Here, former Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon and driver Brad Keselowski have some fun during Champions's Week in Las Vegas in 2012. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LONG POND, Pa. -- As NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps explained the status of the search for a new sponsor to replace Sprint, the Pocono Raceway weather went from cloudy, to drizzle to sun breaking through the clouds all in 15 minutes.

Was it a sign of the roller-coaster ride of the search for a Cup Series sponsor?

"It's all good," Phelps said.

There is no sense of panic within Phelps as the sponsorship search continues and in some ways can be as unpredictable as the Pocono weather. When Nextel was announced to replace Winston in 2003, the deal came together quickly and was announced in June. Two years ago, the Xfinity deal to replace Nationwide as the sponsor of NASCAR's top national developmental series was announced in September.

The announcement of a new Cup sponsor likely will come later. Phelps told ESPN.com on Friday morning that an October announcement is the most likely scenario.

"It will be a fourth quarter [of the year] announcement," Phelps said "The question is when? I don't know."

He stressed not to confuse NASCAR not having a concrete feel of an announcement date with the search not going as planned. He said the timeline is tracking as NASCAR expected when Sprint announced in December 2014 that it would depart after the 2016 season.

As NASCAR heads into the final five weeks of its regular season and the 15 final weeks under Sprint, the focus will remain on Phelps and his team to land the sport's biggest sponsor. The search for a series sponsor in some ways is symbolic of the state and health of the sport. It would have been nice to have seen this wrapped up by now, but that just wouldn't be the reality of the business nor the NASCAR world in 2016.

"We've got roughly 12 companies we're still in discussions with," Phelps said. "They're in various stages. I would say there's an opportunity that I believe we could get an offer from -- five or six.

"The process is going very well. The brands are a mixture of those that are not in the sport right now and some that are in the sport. It's a good list and we're trying to determine what is the best for the sport overall."

Considering companies are crafting budgets for 2017 over the next few months, it would be expected that they would need to know before October if they will have to spend what NASCAR requires. Nextel (now Sprint) was paying reportedly as much as $75 million a year at the start of its 10-year deal in 2004 in terms of fees to NASCAR as well as promotional commitments.

NASCAR doesn't expect a 10-year deal this time around.

"It probably will be a shorter deal," Phelps said. "It is something that bodes from our standpoint and as well a brand standpoint. ... Although we did a 10-year deal with Comcast (for the Xfinity Series); that's a bit of an anomaly in this world today.

"It will depend on the brand and it will depend on what we believe will be right for the sport."

Even when NASCAR signs a deal, the steps prior to the announcement will depend on several factors. NASCAR won't want to tread on the media blitz of the end of the regular season or start of the Chase, possibly feeding speculation of the status of negotiations in order to make sure it does the announcement at the time that works best for NASCAR and its sponsor.

"We'll do it the right way that works for whoever our new partner will be, works best for the sport and then with an eye to what's best for Sprint as well," Phelps said.

The title sponsorship is critical to the sport as it contributes to the season-ending points fund, and the company involved extensively promotes the sport. Those CEOs trying to decide whether to do the deal likely will have reports on the business health of the industry.

The three public companies that operate the bulk of NASCAR tracks report that their overall ticket sales since the Daytona 500 are down 10 percent in 2016. While there are some weather factors (and for Speedway Motorsports, its Texas IndyCar race from June being completed in August means that none of its ticket revenue has been accounted for in the latest financials), those are frustrating numbers.

Reasons from the public companies range from the economy (especially blue-collar workers' financial health) to the retirement (and now temporary un-retirement) of Jeff Gordon to the weaker Canadian dollars having impacted ticket sales.

Both New Hampshire and Indianapolis the past two weeks appeared to have significant attendance declines.

Television ratings and viewership are down 6 percent for the year. Phelps noted that both Daytona and Atlanta combined to have an 18 percent drop and theorizes that the improved 2016 racing has contributed to the chipping away of that decline.

Indianapolis, for all its attendance woes, saw an 11 percent increase in viewership in a race with one pass for the lead under green but featuring the return of Gordon.

When discussing those numbers with potential sponsors, NASCAR will say it's pleased with its social and digital platforms. It has seen increased year-over-year growth in social media followers and people have watched four times the number of videos on Facebook and Twitter from the NASCAR accounts. NASCAR notes that its apps have been downloaded more than 754,000 times.

Companies will take a wider-range look than just the past few weeks' numbers when determining whether to sponsor the series, Phelps said.

"They will look at how have we performed over the past three years, what are the expectation moving forward?" Phelps said. "We're telling them this story about not just television, but we're telling this story about digital and social and this changing consumption pattern for our fan base."

It's a story that NASCAR has shared with the industry, especially through the Race Team Alliance of owners and the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers council.

Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is also a team owner, said the drivers council is one of the best things to happen in the sport, and it has created an unprecedented level of collaboration and consideration and trust of driver views, especially when it comes to competition-related issues. Obviously with a better product should come more fans that would make a series sponsor happy.

"We're all in this together," Stewart said. "If this thing dissolved tomorrow, ... there would be a ton of people out of a job. We all want it to survive. We all want it to thrive and prosper."