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Tight sponsor market weakens silly season

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.



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