Reigning champion Tony Stewart may be set to make it into the Chase after next weekend's race at Richmond, but his headaches off the track are mounting as the Stewart/Haas Racing team has lost a second major sponsor.
The US Army had previously announced at the start of July that it would no longer be a primary sponsor on the #39 car driven by Ryan Newman, leaving the team scrambling to find alternative funding to keep that team in business into 2013. (See separate story
Now the economic gloom has hit closer to home, with the primary sponsor of Stewart's own #14 car calling it a day. Office Depot provided the running for 22 of the team's 36 Sprint Cup race outings this season, but is not renewing the deal for 2013.
"Office Depot has notified SHR that they will not be renewing as the primary sponsor of the #14 team," said Stewart/Haas spokesman Mike Arning.
"The decision to significantly curtail our relationship with Stewart-Haas Racing was very difficult and one that we did not take lightly," confirmed Office Depot's senior director of communications Mindy Kramer at the weekend. "Tony Stewart has been an exceptional ambassador for our brand, and he has gone above and beyond in everything that he has done for our company. Being a part of his legendary 2011 championship run was a moment of tremendous pride for everyone at Office Depot."
"However, the changing business landscape warrants a realignment of priorities and resources," she added, alluding to a significant downturn in the chain's business over the last two years in the current harsh economic climate, which is putting pressure on their bottom line.
Office Depot may still be involved in a minor way with the team, with Stewart/Haas' Arning insisting that the team was in "continued discussions with Office Depot regarding possible future roles the company could have with the team."
"Regardless of what kind of role we'll have with Tony and SHR, our support for them will not change," insisted Kramer. "The Office Depot family will always be with Smoke, cheering him on to many more championships."
The timing is particularly problematic for the team, coming so late in the current season leaving them little time to find a replacement for the start of 2013.
Stewart's other primary backer for the remaining 14 Sprint Cup races, Mobil 1, recently confirmed an extension of its existing contract and will still be with the team next year.
The team had been hoping to expand to a three-car line-up in 2013 with Danica Patrick expected to step up from Nationwide to a full-time presence in Sprint Cup after getting her feet wet with 10 Cup races this season. Patrick brings her own sponsorship backing for the #10 from long-time supporters GoDaddy.com.
However, with both Stewart and Newman now with big gaps in their financial backing it's looking increasingly likely that the team will have only be able to afford one of them to run alongside Patrick. And with Stewart the proven champion and moreover the co-owner of the team with Carl Haas, it's looking increasingly unlikely that Ryan Newman might be without a race seat next season after missing this year's Chase.
Stewart said that he was "praying" that he could still field three cars in 2013, while Arning added the sales pitch to any sponsors who might be listening
"When a brand partners with Stewart and the #14 team, they also get access to Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, as well as a presence at Eldora Speedway and primary sponsorship on the Sprint Cars and dirt Late Models that Stewart runs for fun," Arning pointed out. "Stewart has won nine of these kinds of races so far this year, including two in the elite World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. He also won Denny Hamlin's Late Model charity race at Richmond in April."
It's a great stall the team is laying out. The worry is that if there's no takers for someone of Stewart's obvious appeal and success in the sport, what's going to happen to other teams over the coming months and years as more and more deals come up for reconsideration?