Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Now what for Dale Jr., Rahal after National Guard withdrawal?

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It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know this was coming, but it still doesn’t soften the blow.

The loss of the National Guard sponsorship for both Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in NASCAR, and Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in IndyCar is both troubling and a sign of the times in terms of how fragile racing sponsorships can be.

We’ll start with the 88 car. Consider you have NASCAR’s most popular driver, riding the wave of momentum this year with what’s been by far his best ever season at Hendrick Motorsports and best overall since 2004 – when he won six races and contended for the title down to the wire.

Hendrick now has to sell the 20 races the Guard sponsored, which sounds easy in theory but not necessarily execution. There have been a handful of unsold races along the way for the 88 this year and last; while they’ve eventually been filled, it is still an exercise in pounding the pavement and convincing companies the car needs to be sponsored.

For 2015, Junior has Nationwide Insurance (12 races), PepsiCo (5) and Kelley Blue Book (1) locked in. So as of August 2014 – the time when many Fortune 500 companies are beginning or finalizing their marketing and sponsorship budgets for the following season – it’s likely going to take finding several other companies to fill the remaining 19 points races.

The catch, of course, is that the Hendrick Motorsports statement said the Guard plans to continue in 2015 – so figuring out whether that holds true or the “Guard draws down after 2014” prospect becomes the reality is a question mark on that side.

While filling the void on the 88 might take time, Earnhardt Jr. is still a more sellable asset than Rahal, who at 25 should be one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers but hasn’t quite had it all click.

Rahal, the driver, has failed to recapture the heights he achieved as a then 20-year-old in 2009 with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, when he often troubled the Ganassi and Penske squads at the front of the field. A year of taking part-time opportunities, two midlevel years with Ganassi of his own and a homecoming to his dad’s team a year ago have yielded little – he’s only had six podium finishes in the last five seasons (three in 2011, one apiece in 2012, 2013 and 2014).

source: Getty Images
Second at Detroit only podium for GR this year. Photo: Getty Images

The National Guard sponsorship only got awarded to RLL after a legal battle with John Barnes of Panther Racing, who submitted a higher bid that was ultimately rejected. Panther, unfortunately for its crew, was unable to make the grid in 2014, and thus the series lost another car.

I can’t imagine when RLL worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to capture the Guard support that they thought it would have only been for one year. That’s a royal kick in the pants for a team that added a sponsor and added depth in engineering (Bill Pappas) to support Rahal’s 2014 season.

My hope for RLL is that they weren’t blindsided with this news, and that they have another backup plan ready to replace the $12 million in overall funding brought both to the team and to the at-track activation.

And if there is an upside for RLL, it’s that Bobby Rahal has been in this position before, of needing to find sponsors to replace ones that have left him and his team in the lurch.

Consider just in the last six years, Ethanol, Service Central/Midas/Big O Tires and Acorn Stairlifts have all adorned but now left RLL. Others such as Shell, Miller, Argent, Pioneer and Gigante/Office Depot have all passed through the RLL sponsor arena and have since left IndyCar entirely.

After 2008, RLL had to withdraw from IndyCar full-time once Ethanol pulled out, and Takuma Sato’s 2012 effort was run on a relative shoestring budget without a major sponsor. Still, Sato damn near won the Indianapolis 500 that year.

Perhaps there was a perception issue of the Guard’s presence in motorsports; perhaps the Guard did more than what was reported and that the government never really “got it.” Consider this insight from Kurt Busch’s girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, founder of the Armed Forces Foundation:

Alas, what this withdrawal means is twofold: BIG money in American racing is an endangered species, and no sponsorship is safe.

When you combine the fact the Guard spent more than $40 million this year on its two racing sponsorships and activation/marketing, you have to realize that’s an unsustainable number for any company to support in modern day motorsports. The fact this is a government sponsorship only adds to the perception that it’s a wasted, sunk cost.

Second, when a driver as popular as Dale Jr. is set to lose one of his biggest sponsors, it’s a troublesome sign. The business model in NASCAR is at the point where it almost has to change to make sense. You can guarantee the Race Team Alliance is taking notice of this fact.

Where both the 88 and the 15 go from here is anyone’s guess, but they both have been put on notice by this drawdown.

Kyle Busch open to Indy 500, but “wouldn’t put too good a chance” on it

during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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Following his dominant display this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he swept both poles and both wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Xfinity Series, Kyle Busch doesn’t have much left to conquer at the hallowed “Brickyard.”

Except, maybe, we can dream, one day, of him running that 500-miler around IMS in May.

His brother, Kurt, did it to national acclaim and a heck of a lot of headlines in 2014 – Kurt Busch finished sixth and was that year’s Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year for Andretti Autosport before jetting to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.

But while Kyle Busch’s name has been brought up in rumors about running the Indianapolis 500 before, he didn’t seem entirely interested in running the ‘500 just because his brother did.

“Well, I won’t be following in his footsteps.  I’ll be doing my own footsteps,” Kyle Busch told reporters during his post-victory press conference.

“It certainly may open up some avenues.  I’m not sure.  But there’s some people out there that have expressed some interest to me, so we’ll see where things kind of go.

“But obviously my focus is on the Sprint Cup Series and what I’m doing here, and being able to win races with M&M’s and Skittles, Interstate Batteries and NOS Energy Drink on the XFINITY side, too.

“So I’m having fun with what I’m doing right now, and we’ll see if something is able to line up then there’s a possibility, but I probably wouldn’t put too good a chances on that.”

In the interim, while Busch isn’t extrapolating beyond his NASCAR dominance, he’s right in that he isn’t following in brother Kurt’s footsteps.

Kurt’s stretched his legs with runs in IndyCar, a Champ Car test, a GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype, an NHRA Pro Stock car and an Australian V8 Supercar test over his career.

In his career, Kyle Busch has stuck almost exclusively to NASCAR – and made a living of cleaning up the competition in the process.

Both are among the most talented drivers of their generation, and since Kurt Busch did so well in his maiden Indianapolis 500 bow, we can only dream how well Kyle Busch could do if the stars aligned to ever make it happen.

Off The Grid: Montreal preview (premieres 7/30 on NBCSN)

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The Canadian Grand Prix has become one of Formula 1’s favorite events over the years, playing host to a bumper crowd at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve year after year.

As a result, it made perfect sense for Off The Grid to visit Montreal for the second episode of the year, following the season premiere in Shanghai.

NBCSN’s Will Buxton and Jason Swales took some time over the Canadian Grand Prix weekend to go behind the scenes of the race and lift the lid on life inside the F1 paddock.

In this episode, OTG’s dynamic duo try their hand at ice hockey with the Montreal Canadiens, and are joined by Valtteri Bottas and Marcus Ericsson – both accomplished on the ice as well as on-track.

Will and Jason also take a river rapids boat tour with Manor drivers Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein, get a behind-the-scenes tour of McLaren with Fernando Alonso, and even catch up with Patriots QB Tom Brady who attended the race.

Off The Grid: Montreal premieres on NBCSN at 9:30am ET on Saturday 7/30 following qualifying for the German Grand Prix, and re-airs at 3:30pm ET.

Check out a full preview of the episode in the above video.

Raikkonen secures Driver of the Day honors in Hungary

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Kimi Raikkonen has captured the vote for F1’s Driver of the Day award, following his efforts to come from 14th to sixth place in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, and with the fastest lap of the race in the process.

The Ferrari driver missed Q3 for the first time all season but atoned nicely in the race at a track where passing is usually at a premium.

Raikkonen’s battle with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen was one of the race highlights, the Dutchman defending aggressively – perhaps too much so – against Raikkonen’s advances. But with no penalty assessed and no warning issued, Verstappen ended ahead in the battle for fifth.

“I think it was very questionable, but it’s not my decision to decide,” Raikkonen told NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race.

“I’ve seen penalties for much less. It depends on the stewards.”

The result keeps Raikkonen P4 in the Driver’s Championship, one point behind Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo but four points clear of Ferrari teammate, Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to surpass Schumacher’s Hungary win tally

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Greatc Britain and Mercedes GP lifts the trophy on the podium after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to have surpassed seven-time Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher’s number of Hungarian Grand Prix victories after taking a fifth win in Budapest on Sunday.

Hamilton arrived in Hungary tied with Schumacher on four victories at the Hungaroring, his first success at the track coming in his debut season in 2007.

Further wins in 2009, 2012 and 2013 drew him level with Schumacher before a dominant display on Sunday saw him beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to stand alone on five wins.

“It’s pretty incredible to hear those words, especially when you think I grew up watching Michael,” Hamilton said when informed of the record.

“So to now have had similar, if not one more, than he had here, is just incredible.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the great people I’ve worked with, both at McLaren-Mercedes and now here. It’s a result of great work from such a large group of people.

“I’m really just a chink in the chain. I love it here. I hope there’s more to come before I stop.

“It was not the easiest grand prix I’ve had here in the ten years, nine, ten years – but definitely one I enjoyed.”