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.
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:
• 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.
• 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."