It was May 2007 when reports of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s well-choreographed move to Hendrick Motorsports surfaced. It was April a year ago when Tony Stewart's intent to buy a team was revealed.

These early-season blockbusters set the NASCAR dominoes in motion, leading to a flurry of driver and sponsor changes that shook up the sport each of the past two years.

But as the 2009 calendar flipped past April and May, team owners and marketers found themselves still shopping for companies to fill out this year's sponsor lineup, in addition to selling for 2010.

There's no expectation of an Earnhardt-like shift among the drivers and little chance of a $26 million-a-year megadeal such as the one Aflac signed for Carl Edwards' #99 car in May 2008.

"When you look at the economy and relatively fewer driver openings, it's not surprising that it's this quiet," said John Olguin, vice president of marketing and communications for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "This is the first full season that we've had in the recession. It really had not hit this time last year."

As the industry exited two weeks of activity (or lack thereof) at Lowe's Motor Speedway, all the buzz was about the absence of buzz.

"There is so much uncertainty with the sport, the economy and sponsorship in general," said Greg Busch, senior vice president of GMR Marketing. "It's delaying everything. Years ago, the October race in Charlotte was when all the deals were announced. It moved earlier in the year because sponsors didn't want to let a great opportunity pass by. It's a bit of a maze now that teams have to work through."

The longer it takes for these driver/sponsor changes to shake out, the more impact it has on other business, such as merchandise and advertising campaigns, all of which must be ready for Daytona each February.

But team executives insist their prospects are improving. Max Jones, general manager of Yates Racing, said he's more optimistic now about sponsorship than he has been in the past year. Brett Frood, executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing, said the phones have been busy for the past month.

"We're seeing a lot of activity, a lot of interest," Jones said. "It's not the gloom and doom you see reported all the time. True, there is some uncertainty and people are moving slower. Maybe they're being cautious. But we're having a lot of positive discussions, and I think you will see some new money coming into NASCAR by next year."

"It is a long sales process," said Ty Norris, vice president and general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing. "But I've been in the business 20 years, and back then, companies had to justify their spend just like they do now. The difference is that the dollars have gone up."

A couple of factors have slowed the transactional process, including a lack of hot free-agent drivers; Earnhardt Ganassi's Martin Truex Jr. tops the list. While considered talented and marketable, Truex's greatest claims to fame in his four-year Sprint Cup career are one victory and BFF status with Earnhardt Jr., a former teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Other potentially available drivers, Jamie McMurray and Brian Vickers, aren't exactly turning heads, especially as sponsors salivate over next year's free-agent class of Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

Sponsors also are taking longer to evaluate deals, marketers say, while scouring the landscape for the most affordable option. Many deals cover eight or 10 races, which leaves more partial-season inventory to sell.

"Before, it was a supply-and-demand issue, and you didn't have as much inventory," Frood said. "Now there's more inventory and it's coming at a discounted price. There's a lot of value to be had out there."

Still, the wheels are starting to roll toward 2010 in some shops, industry sources said, even though many of them still have 2009 inventory available.

At Roush Fenway, one scenario for 2010 has Matt Kenseth's #17 sponsor, DeWalt Tools, sharing the car with another primary sponsor at Roush, Crown Royal. Roush Fenway has fielded five Sprint Cup cars since 2002, but NASCAR rules will restrict all teams to no more than four beginning next season. The DeWalt/Crown Royal co-primary sponsorship could be a solution to Roush's necessary contraction while also providing some financial relief to the sponsors.

Michael Waltrip Racing could have a hole to fill in the #55 if Waltrip decides to retire from driving. That is likely to become the home for Truex, who would be part of the equation to renew NAPA.

Hendrick Motorsports also could be in the market for sponsors on Mark Martin's #5 as Kellogg's and CarQuest evaluate their options for 2010. Jeff Gordon's #24 might have needs, as well, if DuPont continues to scale back its NASCAR programmw, something it began doing this year by reducing hospitality from 37 races to six.

"We're talking to several companies that are not currently in the sport," said Rod Moskowitz, whose Motorsports Management International agency seeks endorsement deals for its drivers, including Stewart and Kahne. "The good news is that they're taking meetings and they're interested. But it takes a lot of time when you're a company that doesn't have a history in racing or racing is not part of your culture."
by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal