When many of the existing NASCAR driver and sponsorship deals were signed, the world economy was in much better shape than it is today. So as those deals approach their expiry, the economic chill is starting to be felt even in North America's most popular motor sport series.

Some drivers and teams are faring better than others. With one of the most high profile drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, Joe Gibbs Racing had comparatively little trouble getting confectionary giant Mars to re-sign as sponsor of Kyle Busch's #18 car in March, meaning that the distinctive and very colourful M&M's livery will remain in the sport for some years to come.

"Mars and its iconic brands are a big part of the Joe Gibbs Racing family and we're excited to continue what has become a winning relationship," said Joe Gibbs last month confirming a "multi-year" extension to the partnership between the two companies, said to be at the same financial level as before - rumoured to be worth around $20m annually.

Kevin Harvick doesn't have the same sort of high personal profile as Busch, but after coming third in last year's Sprint Cup championship he's started 2011 with two spectacular wins in the first eight races (the only driver to win more than once so far this season) and has more than earned the multi-year deal signed last year with Richard Childress Racing. But he's being made to work hard this year in service of his new sponsor Budweiser.

Decked out in a Bud hat and corporate-compliant black polo shirt, blue jeans and grey trainers, he visited the Crown Beverage distribution facility near Darlington Raceway earlier this month and was then dispatched to deliver some of the beer to a local Wal-Mart, pushing a trolly full of crates down the aisles before stocking up the shelves to confused looks from members of the public while the photographers got their photo op. Harvick reconciled himself to the circus by quipping, "I get to drink beer and not get in trouble for it."

And at least he's secure in the sport, unlike his RCR team mate Clint Bowyer who despite being in the Chase three times in the past five seasons is yet to sign a new deal with the team. "I've talked to Richard a couple times, and hopefully we're getting close on that," he said. "Hopefully we can get our sponsors locked in and get everything put in place and not have to worry about it."

Another of RCR's drivers, Jeff Burton, has just sealed his own multi-year extension with the team and with his sponsors, construction and mining equipment manufacturers Caterpillar, to keep him in the #31. 43-year-old Burton remains one of the sport's most popular drivers, despite a lacklustre season to date. Burton has been with RCR for nearly eight years, and Caterpillar has been a sponsor since the start of 2009. Terms of the agreements were not announced, as sponsors, teams and drivers alike remained close-lipped about the hard negotiations going on this year, with sponsors seeking to cut their exposure and teams desperate to minimise the hit on their revenue.

Greg Biffle will be feeling a lot happier having signed a three-year extension with Roush Fenway Racing to continue driving the #16, and his primary sponsor 3M has signed a similar deal that will see team, driver and sponsor carry on through to the 2014 season. 3M is a model of the long-term, committed sponsor that makes a real difference to an organisation. They originally linked up with Roush Fenway Racing back in February 2005, initially using the #16 to promote their Post-It brand: five weeks in to the arrangement and the new sponsors found themselves on the car heading for victory road at Texas.

"We set the bar pretty high early on with 3M and they have stood by us on our best and worst days over the years," said Biffle. "The people at 3M have found a way to innovate and make their NASCAR program work for their incredibly diverse businesses and brands in a way that continues to amaze me."

In all, Roush Fenway Racing has four major sponsors whose deals were up for renewal at the end of this season: re-signing 3M takes care of one of those, but there are still three to go. Matt Kenseth is backed by whisky maker Crown Royal (who are also one of the title sponsors of this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Roadway) while David Ragan has sponsorship from international logistics giant UPS.

"Let's be honest: the world has changed a lot since the economy crashed," said UPS's director of sponsorship Ron Rogowski. "NASCAR has had a few setbacks. The numbers haven't been where they used to be. You have this economic impact and the state of the sport. You sit down with teams, and there's a very active discussion to make an investment work harder."

Amazingly, Roush Fenway's other driver, Carl Edwards - who currently leads this year's Sprint Cup championship, after finishing in fourth place in 2010 - is one of the drivers whose contracts expires at the end of the year and who has not yet agreed an extension with the team or so far signed an alternative deal elsewhere. His #99 has been sponsored by medical insurer Aflac, and by Scotts Miracle-Gro (the world's largest seller of lawn and garden products) for the past eight years, which has previously praised Edwards as "a great representative [for Scotts] with integrity, passion and a winning attitude."

But as much as companies like Aflac and Scotts may like Edwards, can they justify and afford to keep him on the books? It's reminiscent of the moment when Ford Motor Company's global board suddenly asked, "Who is this Eddie Irvine?" when they found out that the Jaguar F1 driver was one of their most highly paid employees. From that moment, Ford's involvement in the sport was doomed and they pulled out shortly after.

"We're seeing a lot of discussions around measurement and showing how [sponsoring teams] in NASCAR generates greater sales, greater exposure and greater brand awareness," said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway's senior vice president of business operations.

"The type of money the marketplace was commanding a few years ago isn't there anymore," pointed out Dave Grant, head of sports and events specialist marketing agency Team Epic. "The pricing has maxed out. Teams are recognising the new reality, and that's part of it."

"Three years ago you saw deals in the $18 to $22 million range and today we're probably in that $13 to $17 million range," agreed Tamera Green, a vice-president at GMR Marketing.

Where previously NASCAR and the teams held the whip hand in negotiations, now the boot is firmly on the other foot and teams are having to add more value, accept "performance related" deals dependent on triggers such as qualifying for the Chase, or simply be more flexible in negotiations if they want to keep their sponsors on board. Even the formidable US Army is trimming its marketing budgets: it has reduced its sponsorship of Stewart-Haas Racing down to 15 races from 23 last year and negotiated a lower price per race, "to take into account audience, TV ratings and where the market is moving." The Stewart-Haas team is having to make more promotional appearances for the Army, and even sweetened the deal by making Tony Stewart's suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway available for their corporate sponsors' use during the Indy 500 and Brickyard races.

Similarly, Roush Fenway Racing's renewed deal with 3M is also reported to be for fewer races from 2012, reducing the company's overall expenditure - but at least the flexibility is keeping the sponsor on board for the majority of events and securing Biffle's position in NASCAR.

Among the drivers with no deal in place beyond the end of the season is Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya, who despite not having anything like the level of race-winning success of Edwards, Harvick, Biffle or Busch is still one of NASCAR's top stars and most recognisable and bankable names, thanks to his time in Formula 1, IndyCar and ChampCar. Montoya is yet to win on an oval track in NASCAR, but has won twice on the series' road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Montoya's #42 is sponsored by US retailing giant Target, which also sponsors the Ganassi cars of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon in IndyCar.

At 52 the series' oldest active driver, Mark Martin, will definitely be leaving Hendrick Motorsport at the end of 2011 as Kasey Kahne transfers in from Red Bull Racing. Whether Martin will retire from full time competition or seek a seat elsewhere is not yet known, but it was announced last week that Hendrick had signed a five-race deal for this season with Farmers Insurance to sponsor Martin, which will include a special commemorative #25 for the Sprint All-Star Race in place of Martin's regular #5.

At least the entry of Farmers Insurance onto the sponsorship scene is a small ray of hope for NASCAR teams. Last year, the only major new team sponsor to join NASCAR was health insurers AARP, making it harder for anyone without an enduring arrangement with a company with deep pockets to survive. The series' newest star is Trevor Bayne, who despite winning the Daytona 500 in February is still struggling to gather enough sponsorship to make his Sprint Cup appearances viable: Wood Brothers Racing only finally managed to get sponsorship in place for Bayne for the Sprint All-Star Race on April 12 when a deal was done with Good Sam Club, a sister company of Camping World.

But sometimes there's reward for on-track efforts: Dave Blaney ran at or near the front for lengthy periods at Talladega two weeks ago and even threatened to pull off a shock win until he was spun out by Kurt Busch, and it's now been confirmed that the deal between Tommy Baldwin Racing and Golden Corral restaurants will be extended to cover the #36 for the whole of the 2011 season. As part of the link-up, Golden Corral offers a "Kids Eat Free promotion" for the following Monday should the #36 finish in the top ten - a deal that was the subject of some good-natured ribbing from Harvick during the race as he partnered up for drafting with Blaney. Even light-hearted mocking over the in-car radio gets invaluable on-air national TV time that makes the deal more than pay for itself for the sponsor, and that's what everyone's looking for in these austere times.

NASCAR's sponsorship situation has been most affected by the collapse of the car manufacturing business in America, with even Japanese car giants affected by the worldwide slowdown in sales. The car industry has always been an obvious backer of motor sports, and now with those businesses no longer in a fit state to pour money into the sport - along with the end of tobacco and alcohol sponsorship for regulatory reasons, and even banks running scared of being seen to spend money after their role in the recent financial crisis - all racing series are having to work extra hard at developing new potential backers in unexpected and previously unexplored sectors.

As a sport and as a business, NASCAR is confident that it remains healthy and appealing to sponsors: TV ratings are up in 2011 by almost a fifth on last year, and crowd attendance is holding up reasonably well, too. There's increased competition for media coverage and sponsorship backing from the rival IZOD IndyCar series, which has been making some high-profile PR initiatives such as the $5m Vegas "challenge" event that has caught the imagination of US motor sports fans; but the truth is that IndyCar enjoys only a fraction of the ratings of NASCAR, which remains North America's top motor racing competition by a wide margin and makes them the only game in town for any big name sponsors seeking mass audiences in motor sports.

"You're seeing increased interest from sponsors across the board from where we were a year ago," Roush Fenway's Newmark said. "Whether that materializes into sales remains to be seen, but we're optimistic."



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