The third time was the charm when it came to merchandise sales for NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

The winner of his third consecutive Sprint Cup title in 2008, Johnson had always been a solid sales performer, but his popularity trailed his performance on the track, at least in terms of moving product.

That changed toward the end of 2008 as Johnson closed on another points title. Johnson's championship merchandise, which featured references to "3X" and "back to back to back," sold at a clip 20 per cent ahead of last year's title gear, representing one of the few bright spots in a fourth quarter that was challenged by the economy.

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With a boost from those increases, Johnson finished second in merchandise sales for the year to perennial front-runner Dale Earnhardt Jr., according to the NASCAR.com Superstore. Johnson hurdled Jeff Gordon, who dropped to third during a winless 2008 season.

"The championship merchandise performed a lot better than we thought it would or that it had in the past," said Mike Denton, NASCAR.com's director of e-commerce. "And the (sales cycle) lasted a lot longer, too. Either a lot more fans jumped on the bandwagon or he's gained a lot of new fans as he's established himself over the year."

Mark Dyer, president and CEO of licensee Motorsports Authentics, said the merchandise sales reflect an evolution of Johnson's slow but steady rise in popularity.

"The increase in sales for the championship merchandise was very significant given the retail sales environment that the whole consumer product world dealt with in the fourth quarter," Dyer said. "Jimmie's third championship became a huge story and fans have responded to that.

"The media generally wonders why he's not more popular, why he doesn't get a bigger hand from the crowds. But he's definitely on an upward trend and he's going to do nothing but add more fans."

Among the other top NASCAR merchandise stories in 2008:

o Kyle Busch's sales were up an astonishing 610 per cent at NASCAR.com Superstore over 2007 and up 96 per cent at trackside. Busch, in a new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing with a new sponsor in M&M's, won eight of the first 22 Sprint Cup races and 21 races total in the Cup, Nationwide and truck series.

o Earnhardt, sporting a new #88 and first-year sponsors Amp Energy and National Guard, sold 54 per cent more at trackside and 20 per cent more at the NASCAR.com Superstore. For a driver who was already responsible for a third of all NASCAR merchandise sales in 2007, Earnhardt accounted for close to 40 percent or more of all sales in 2008, which Dyer called "an outstanding year."

o Carl Edwards, who finished second to Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, saw his sales go up 16 per cent at trackside and NASCAR.com Superstore. Most drivers with a lame-duck sponsor experience significant declines, Dyer said, but Edwards' sales held up despite it being the final year of his deal with Office Depot. Aflac takes over primary sponsorship on a full-time basis this year.

o The conventional race wear, such as T-shirts, uniform jackets and pit caps, continued to be the best sellers as Motorsports Authentics, the top licensee in NASCAR, saw sales increases over 2007. Women's apparel also saw solid increases, MA reported. NASCAR reported that its merchandise business was up 15 percent in 2008 over 2007.

While several driver and sponsor developments for 2009 have Motorsports Authentics and NASCAR.com Superstore guardedly optimistic, the realities of the economy have them hedging their bets this year.

Denton said the Superstore's sales goals are flat with 2008, repeating the mantra for many companies in 2009: Flat is good. "We're certainly taking a more conservative approach," he said.

Motorsports Authentics, which reduced its fleet of trackside trailers from 49 to 25 last year, will continue to look for consolidation opportunities, especially among the drivers who aren't moving as much merchandise. But the changes won't be as drastic as they were the previous year, the company said, and it is mulling those options as the season approaches.

MA also plans to reduce the amount of goods it orders for each driver, unless that driver is undergoing a change in car or sponsor that might spur sales.

Dyer said Gordon's new black paint scheme; Tony Stewart's new sponsors (Office Depot, Old Spice) and car #14; Edwards' new Aflac paint scheme; and the highly anticipated rookie season of Joey Logano are factors that could drive sales for those drivers.

MA also plans to expand its offerings of the "Digger" merchandise representing the graphical gopher on Fox's broadcasts.

by Michael Smith/Sporting News

Michael Smith is a staff writer for Sports Business Journal