Hendrick doing well to prepare for possibility of National Guard leaving the 88

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Rick Hendrick didn’t get to be one of NASCAR’s most successful owners by not seeing the trends and directions the business is going.

Hendrick, and his entire Hendrick Motorsports organization, have done an excellent job of putting together partnerships to keep his empire at the top of the NASCAR heap.

He’s done it for more than 25 years, despite partners that have come and gone.

He’s doing it again, now, in preparing for the possible departure of the National Guard from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car.

The increase in sponsor announcements with new partners Nationwide Insurance and DC Entertainment being announced within the last few weeks, and also with Mtn Dew stepping up its activation with a series of videos, are clear signs that Hendrick’s team is working ‘round the clock to get more companies on board the 88 in case the Guard departs.

It’s not inconceivable that they will – witness two reports of note from the past couple weeks.

A USA Today report indicated that despite the more than $26+ million spent on activation and sponsorships in 2012, there was not a single recruit signup at a NASCAR event.

While that doesn’t factor into account local branches where the Guard could attract –and sign – new recruits, it’s still a worrying report.

Then there’s this from Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, veteran NASCAR reporter who is among the best at deciphering the business side of the sport:

The Army National Guard has a new leader in Judd Lyons, who took over in January. At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing last week, Lyons vowed to re-examine the effectiveness of the National Guard sponsorship. He said the Guard is conducting more in-depth surveys of those enlisting to determine what led them to enlist, which in turn should help them understand the value.

Political pressure of military sponsorships in NASCAR is nothing new. It’s been going on for several years. And that’s the way it should be — those in charge of spending taxpayer dollars have an interest in how those dollars are spent.

When a change at the top happens to any company – especially one whose motorsports’ spending have been as closely scrutinized as the Guard’s has been – you have to begin preparing for the eventuality that the deal is closer to the end of its life span than the beginning.

The Guard has backed Dale Jr. and the 88 since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

If you’re the Guard, you’ve supported NASCAR’s most popular driver through thick-and-thin, and through what have been more trying years than actual delivery on track.

Junior’s made the Chase each of the last three years, but prior to his much appreciated Daytona 500 victory this year, he’s won only two other races in his stint at Hendrick. He’s still never won a championship, even though he has a good shot to this year in his last season with crew chief Steve Letarte (another area Hendrick will need to address for 2015).

Sponsors demand ROI, even if they happen to have one of the sport’s most marketable drivers, and even if they have the most popular driver.

But they don’t stay on forever. And at only seven years together, the Guard-Dale Jr. relationship isn’t at the length of a Jeff Gordon-DuPont or John Force-Castrol type relationship of 20 or more years.

Hendrick prepared for the eventuality of DuPont’s departure as Gordon’s primary backer by having other associates ready to step up, and ultimately putting together a deal with the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger that has now been the primary backer on the 24 car for several seasons.

You can tell he’s doing the same now on the 88 to keep Dale Jr., in the face of what appears to be a slowly phased down withdrawal by the Guard.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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