At 52 the series' oldest active driver, Mark Martin, will definitely be leaving Hendrick Motorsport at the end of 2011 as Kasey Kahne transfers in from Red Bull Racing. Whether Martin will retire from full time competition or seek a seat elsewhere is not yet known, but it was announced last week that Hendrick had signed a five-race deal for this season with Farmers Insurance to sponsor Martin, which will include a special commemorative #25 for the Sprint All-Star Race in place of Martin's regular #5.
At least the entry of Farmers Insurance onto the sponsorship scene is a small ray of hope for NASCAR teams. Last year, the only major new team sponsor to join NASCAR was health insurers AARP, making it harder for anyone without an enduring arrangement with a company with deep pockets to survive. The series' newest star is Trevor Bayne, who despite winning the Daytona 500 in February is still struggling to gather enough sponsorship to make his Sprint Cup appearances viable: Wood Brothers Racing only finally managed to get sponsorship in place for Bayne for the Sprint All-Star Race on April 12 when a deal was done with Good Sam Club, a sister company of Camping World.
But sometimes there's reward for on-track efforts: Dave Blaney ran at or near the front for lengthy periods at Talladega two weeks ago and even threatened to pull off a shock win until he was spun out by Kurt Busch, and it's now been confirmed that the deal between Tommy Baldwin Racing and Golden Corral restaurants will be extended to cover the #36 for the whole of the 2011 season. As part of the link-up, Golden Corral offers a "Kids Eat Free promotion" for the following Monday should the #36 finish in the top ten - a deal that was the subject of some good-natured ribbing from Harvick during the race as he partnered up for drafting with Blaney. Even light-hearted mocking over the in-car radio gets invaluable on-air national TV time that makes the deal more than pay for itself for the sponsor, and that's what everyone's looking for in these austere times.
NASCAR's sponsorship situation has been most affected by the collapse of the car manufacturing business in America, with even Japanese car giants affected by the worldwide slowdown in sales. The car industry has always been an obvious backer of motor sports, and now with those businesses no longer in a fit state to pour money into the sport - along with the end of tobacco and alcohol sponsorship for regulatory reasons, and even banks running scared of being seen to spend money after their role in the recent financial crisis - all racing series are having to work extra hard at developing new potential backers in unexpected and previously unexplored sectors.
As a sport and as a business, NASCAR is confident that it remains healthy and appealing to sponsors: TV ratings are up in 2011 by almost a fifth on last year, and crowd attendance is holding up reasonably well, too. There's increased competition for media coverage and sponsorship backing from the rival IZOD IndyCar series, which has been making some high-profile PR initiatives such as the $5m Vegas "challenge" event that has caught the imagination of US motor sports fans; but the truth is that IndyCar enjoys only a fraction of the ratings of NASCAR, which remains North America's top motor racing competition by a wide margin and makes them the only game in town for any big name sponsors seeking mass audiences in motor sports.
"You're seeing increased interest from sponsors across the board from where we were a year ago," Roush Fenway's Newmark said. "Whether that materializes into sales remains to be seen, but we're optimistic."