NASCAR: No early exit expected for title sponsor Sprint

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CHARLOTTE – The last time NASCAR needed a title sponsor for its premier series, the existing company was replaced with four years remaining on its contract. But executives aren’t expecting a repeat with Sprint already having announced its impending exit after the 2016 season.

“Do I think (Sprint) will exit early? No,” NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps told MotorsportsTalk after NASCAR played host to the opening news conference Monday of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “Do I think we’ll find someone for ’16? No. Only because we want to make sure the process is really followed smartly.

“Trying to rush through to find something for ’16 … although on one hand, people might say, ‘You get someone new, (and) they’re not a lame duck’ or whatever term, I don’t think that’s the right approach. And the good thing is since Sprint is very engaged, they are honoring their commitments to us, which are extensive. So I think we’re in a good spot.”

Sprint officials have indicated they fully will honor the remainder of its deal, and NASCAR Chairman Brian France said Monday after his annual State of the Sport address that he didn’t expect Sprint would be replaced early.

NASCAR and Sprint entered into negotiations about the title sponsorship last fall, and the wireless communications company announced its departure in mid-December with two years left on a three-year extension that was signed in 2011.

Sprint was rebranded as the title sponsor in 2008 after its merger with Nextel, which signed a 10-year deal estimated at $70 million annually to replace R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand starting in 2004.

RJR revealed in January 2003 it had requested an exit from its deal (which ran through 2007) if NASCAR could find a replacement. Less than six months later, Nextel was unveiled in a splashy New York news conference as the successor for the following season.

The economic climate isn’t as strong for NASCAR funding a decade later, but Phelps said the candidate pool was less of a factor than finding a suitable fit. Phelps said it took about a year to land XFINITY, which will replace Nationwide as the backer of NASCAR’s second-tier circuit this season.

“I know what this process is going to look like,” Phelps said. “Getting XFINITY on board, we were very regimented, because it’s not just about money. It’s about finding the right marketing partner for the sport. It’s about brand alignment for our sport and for their brand, so it’ll be a very thoughtful process.”

Phelps wouldn’t disclose any potential candidates but said “we’ve had a number of calls saying, ‘Sure, we would like to take a look at this.’ ” NASCAR also hasn’t limited the search to any particular categories.

“We’re trying to stay as broad as we can at this point,” he said. “Given the investment that it will require, you’ve already started to narrow your field. A local company selling widgets is not what it’s going to be. We need a company with significant resources, particularly on the marketing side to be able to really look at this.”

Phelps said Chief Sales Officer Jim O’Connell will be leading the search for a new title sponsor, but NASCAR’s executive team would be involved heavily.

“It’s a big undertaking because it’s such an important position in the sport,” Phelps said. “There’s a lot of weight on the whole organization’s shoulders. Everyone is going to have a touchpoint to this.”

“We do have time to find someone, and I firmly believe we will find someone. We’ll find the right partner for us.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.