How NASCAR teams are dealing with unfilled sponsorships in 2017

Rides for both Clint Bowyer, left, and Kasey Kahne are still in need of full-time sponsors for certain races. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

When Clint Bowyer hits the track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he will have the company of team owner Gene Haas on his hood.

It will mark the second time in three weeks that Bowyer will have Haas Automation as his sponsor. Stewart-Haas Racing has spent the past 17 months working on selling sponsorship since naming Bowyer to take over for Tony Stewart starting this year, and it has announced only a few races with Mobil 1.

After Nature's Bakery terminated its 28-race deal for Bowyer's teammate Danica Patrick, she could have more than half the season open (the team won't confirm an exact number), leading to as many as 40 races still in need of a full sponsor just at SHR. Haas had already committed to sponsoring about half the season for Kurt Busch through his company.

"It's good for corporate America to know that we have a lot of races to sell on our car right now," Tony Stewart, a co-owner of the team, said the day before the Daytona 500. "You don't get that interest if they don't know it's available. ... Obviously, [Nature's Bakery] has been a curve ball for us.

"I'm very confident in our marketing staff. We've done a good job up until this point. I don't feel like this is a deal-breaker for us. We won't sacrifice performance over this. When you have four teams, it's a lot of inventory to sell, and you're going to have times like this."

SHR isn't the only organization on the NASCAR Cup circuit that still has plenty of races to fill over the 36-race schedule (plus two exhibition events). Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth has 20 races of sponsorship unannounced this year. Hendrick Motorsports is still looking for 11 races overall, including eight for Kasey Kahne. Roush Fenway Racing has open races for both its drivers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports scaled down from two teams to one, and the two-car HScott Motorsports and one-car Tommy Baldwin Racing either shut down or stopped racing full time.

There are some success stories: Two organizations (Furniture Row Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing) did add a car apiece with additional sponsorship. Ganassi is in the best position it has been in recently with just a handful of races open. Long-time full-season sponsor FedEx re-upped with Denny Hamlin for multiple years at JGR. Shell-Pennzoil just announced a deal that goes at least through 2023 to sponsor Joey Logano at Team Penske. That deal is unusual in the sense that it pays for itself in many ways through a business-to-business relationship where Penske purchases the company's products -- both oil and fuel -- for his trucking operation and use in his dealerships as well as research and development for those products.

"Overall, it gave us a chance to combine the business side," team owner Roger Penske said. "We've used the motorsports as a common thread through the business. ... It's massive for us, not just here [at the track], but across the business."

Penske was able to get that extension done despite a year that followed a 7.4 percent drop -- the most in four years -- in admissions revenue for NASCAR track operators. While Cup races were among the top-two viewed sports events of a weekend 17 times in 2016, a key plank for marketers when determining advertising, the Cup races saw a 9.8 percent drop in television viewership, from 5.1 million per race in 2015 to 4.6 million per race in 2016.

Among the companies that left from sponsoring teams after last season include Dollar General, Cheez-It, Zest, Nature's Bakery, KFC and Thrivent Financial. Farmers Insurance already has announced that 2017 will be its last year.

Teams say there's no one reason why sponsors leave.

"I wish there was," said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. "They give us pretty good feedback on, 'Here's the reasons we made this decision,' and they're almost always completely different. ... Although we get the feedback, it hasn't helped us from a macro perspective."

A change in leadership, marketing philosophies and calculating return on investment can all weigh into a decision. Performance, of course, matters, although teams will try to make sure the sponsor gets value before the car hits the track in case performance sags.

Roush Fenway released its most veteran driver, Greg Biffle, with a year left on his contract after it couldn't find sponsorship and deciding that, in order to improve performance, it needed to downsize this year to two cars.

"Every team is somewhat unique in where they are with their sponsor pipeline," Newmark said. "I don't think the whole garage rises and falls in the same manner.

"Last year, I would say the pipeline wasn't as deep. This year, I think we've had more interest -- whether it's because the pipeline is getting more mature and [team co-owner] Fenway [Sports Group] is more involved or whether it's because a buzz about the sport or it's because particular things have connected with particular drivers."

"When you're selling two or three races at a time versus an entire season, it's a challenge. When you have inventory, you want to sell inventory that you have. You'd love to have long-term deals. The immediate concern is just selling the inventory that we have for this year. ...You'll take what you can get."
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas co-owner on team sponsorships

The Nature's Bakery deal showed that star athletes with crossover appeal can command millions. SHR was getting $15 million for 28 races ($535,714 a race) from the fig bar company.

With all the teams set up as independent contractors, there is no set amount for sponsorships. At the rate-per-race that Nature's Bakery was paying SHR, that works to $20.4 million over the season.

Some struggling teams sell the hood of their car for reportedly low five-figures a race if they get desperate, creating a decision for many organizations on whether to take less money than they think it really is worth just to have something. Rick Hendrick has said in the past he would rather promote something from one of his dealerships or try to add value to a current partner than devalue the price of a race sponsorship to get a new company on the hood.

Leavine Family Racing, a smaller one-car operation, was left without sponsorship for most of the season when two of its sponsors announced in November and December they wouldn't return. The team is committed to fielding a car for Michael McDowell all season.

"I'm OK with the market knowing what Stewart-Haas is charging," said Jeremy Lange, vice president of Leavine Family Racing. "I don't think anyone should have a problem with that. If they get it, great.

"The problem I have is the people who are taking the low end, because that puts everyone down at the bottom. I'm not going to sell it for 10-grand because I'd never get 200-grand for it."

Lange said he is optimistic and talks include deals that cover multiple years.

"We're having good conversations. ... We're trying to be strategic. We're trying to fish in ponds that haven't been looked at in the past and looking to leverage the construction side of the business," Lange said. "I think a lot of people were hesitant to see what was going to happen post-election."

Many Cup cars have multiple sponsors, and that can cause a trickle-down effect to the smaller teams and to other series. Maybe $5 million will get half a season at a smaller team as opposed to 10 races at a bigger one. There also are options to sponsor a car in more races in other series. In the Xfinity Series, Joe Mattes, the vice president of JR Motorsports, said it takes $6-7 million to be competitive. In the trucks, Kyle Busch Motorsports was asking for $3.2 million as of 2015, according to the failed deal with Justin Boston Motorsports that ended up in the courts.

What a sponsor wants out of a NASCAR deal can vary among the sponsors. Sponsors in the consumer products category want to move product. Others are in it for the business-to-business relationships. Some might be more interested in a team's email list or other digital assets. Others want a combination.

Those trying to sell sponsorship say they must act like an agency and sell a turnkey operation if the sponsor wants it.

"There's interest -- it still takes six, nine, 12 to 18 months to close," said Mattes, who handles sponsorship for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team and his brand. "You're always prospecting. ... Our No. 1 challenge is to understand our consumers better -- all aspects, their age groups, their shopping habits."

Earnhardt does have one Cup race open at Hendrick, and his Xfinity Series team has nearly all of its races sold for its four full-time cars. Earnhardt can play a role in securing those sponsorships, but his time is limited.

Sponsors obviously want the driver to help them sell product. The Nature's Bakery deal with SHR, now a public record as part of the lawsuit, shines light on the current climate.

Nature's Bakery, for its primary events, was promised to have its graphics on the hood of the car as well as the upper quarter panels, rear panel, deck lid and roof. On Patrick's uniform and the crew uniforms, its logos were required on the center of the uniform, upper chest, back collar, sleeves and legs.

The company got four annual hard cards (bought by the team) for individuals to have access to all NASCAR events, plus six "hot" and four "cold" passes for every race Nature's Bakery was a primary sponsor and two hot and two cold passes for each race that it was an associate sponsor.

SHR committed Patrick to three six-hour production days for Nature's Bakery, at least five social-media initiatives, a dozen two-hour at-track commitments (such as a dinner or other event), three two-hour in-race-market commitments and a mutually agreed upon number of 15-minute meet-and-greets at the track.

Those numbers are all negotiable, but those in the industry weren't surprised by any of those conditions. Mattes said the time demands were similar to demands for Earnhardt's deals.

Someone like Earnhardt needs to have them spelled out.

"We like all our contracts to have firm deliverables," Mattes said. "At a bare minimum, you've got to deliver those. It's a lot easier. You never want to go back to that contract. You never want to look at that contract, but you do want to say this is the agreed-upon deliverables.

"We'll collaborate. Is a store appearance really that important? If you're going to use that hour or two hours, be more effective. Do it digitally? Socially? We offer that up or video vignettes as well versus an appearance. But sometimes an appearance is really, really important."

Those details are usually able to get done -- where there's a will, there's a way. It's finding the company to have the will, and then once convincing one member of a company's senior leadership, it often has to convince others.

Stewart said his team will take one-year deals rather than the preferred multi-year deal at this time of year. In his last years of racing, Stewart had seasons where he needed more than one hand to count the number of primary sponsors he had during a season.

"When you're selling two or three races at a time versus an entire season, it's a challenge," Stewart said. "When you have inventory, you want to sell inventory that you have. You'd love to have long-term deals.

"The immediate concern is just selling the inventory that we have for this year. ... You'll take what you can get."

The big teams such as SHR have support from manufacturers, and that support doesn't just come from cash. It can come from engineering support, use of facilities and research and development resources that can compensate if the team can't afford something on its own.

Owners sometimes just open their wallets, and SHR has a big wallet in Haas, whose Haas Automation does more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Haas said SHR made money last year. His Formula 1 team, which competed in its first season in 2016 but is a separate business than his NASCAR operation (although both based in North Carolina), didn't make money.

"It's not uncommon in this world for things to not work out the way you want," he said when asked if the Nature's Bakery deal going sour would impact his Formula 1 team, which he funds. "That's why we've got to rely on the legal system for that to all sort out. We're certainly going to have to make some allowances.

"It's a business, and we need the revenue like anything else. I don't think it's going to put us out of business, but it's painful."

-- ESPN.com's Nate Saunders contributed to this report.