Monday, November 29, 2010

5 pleasant surprises from 2010 in NASCAR

I recently saw a column about the biggest disappointments from the past season. Nothing wrong with looking at that, but I thought I'd like to take a positive approach, and look at some of the more pleasant surprises of the 2010 NASCAR season.

1. Regan Smith - Driving for the only team headquarted West of the Mississippi, little was probably expected from Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing. But this team is consistently overperforming expectations. This year, they proved that the loss of Jay Guy to Penske Racing at the end of the 2009 season was not an obstacle to continued progress. The mid-season replacement of Ryan Coniam with former Dale Earnhardt, Jr., crew chief Pete Rondeau is showing positive results.

While other single-car and lower-level teams were fighting for top 35 slots, the 78 team went on a tear in the last part of the season and passed bigger-budget teams like Penske's 77 (Sam Hornish, Jr.) and Red Bull's 82 (Scott Speed), to finish 28th in driver points and 29th in owner points. Look for this team to be a contender to move solidly into the second tier of race teams next year.

2. Aric Almirola - This driver has shown promise for some time, but like his former DEI teammate Regan Smith, didn't really get the support he needed in the 2008 season. He started '09 still with DEI, but sponsorship troubles left him without a ride only a handful of races into the season.

He kept showing up to tracks, looking to find a ride, and eventually landed a truck ride with Billy Ballew Motorsports, where he showed off his skills. This past year, he finished second in the points in the Camping World Truck series and made some impressive runs toward the end of the year in the Richard Petty Motorsports #9, taking over when Kasey Kahne left for Red Bull. He finished in the top five in the last Cup race at Homestead.

Next year will find him in the JR Motorsports 88 car, in which he scored one top 5 and several top 10 finishes running it part time this year.

3. Johanna Long - An 18-year-old short track racer from Florida, Johanna landed a ride in the Billy Ballew Motorsports 15 truck. In her first race, she finished 17th on the lead lap at IRP, getting the attention of many. She ran a couple more races in the 15, but sponsorship troubles led to the shuttering of that team. She was quickly back on track in a family-owned truck, and is still showing strength.

I wouldn't be surprised if she shows up in the Nationwide Series for a race or two next year.

4. Cole Whitt - How can you not like this kid? He shows up in Phoenix for the second-to-the-last race of the Nationwide season, having never driven a Nationwide car, and was fastest in happy hour. Then, he goes on to to a 15th place finish in the main event. He backed that up with a 17-place finish at Homestead the following week.

The 19-year-old from Alpine, California also drives the Red Bull No. 84 Toyota in the K&N Pro Series East.

Race team owners: sign this guy up before your competition does.

5. Elliot Sadler - Elliot has been written off by many as a guy who only has a ride because of his outgoing personality, but he showed flashes of excellence this year, winning a race in the Camping World truck series in KHI's #2 Silverado. He also ran some Nationwide races for JR Motorsports and one for KHI, getting respectable finishes in each car, including a top 3 in the 33 car.

He ran strongly in RPM's #19 cup car at times this year, sitting on the pole at Texas, and finishing in the top 10 at Michigan.

He will return to the #33 KHI Nationwide car next year to run the full season. NASCAR's expected rules for Nationwide points will probably keep him mostly out of Cup next year, but if he does well in the 33, expect to see him back in the top series in 2012.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Regan Smith gets engaged

Regan Smith, driver of the Furniture Row #78 Chevrolet, tweeted that he asked his girlfriend Megan to marry him. After some queries in response, he further clarified that she accepted. No date was announced for the marriage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

10 companies that belong in NASCAR

The championship is decided, and it's on to another NASCAR season. The forthcoming season, even more so that this past season, is wrought with financial uncertainty. Sponsors are difficult to find, even for top teams like the 24.

Chances are there will be races next year, even the in Sprint Cup circuit, without a full field.

One problem is certainly the slow economy. But, one could argue that in a slow economy, companies need to connect with consumers more than ever. There seems to have been a hesitancy recently among many race teams to take the responsibility to go out and find sponsors, relying instead on drivers to bring along sponsors.

That's not working out especially well. Just ask Front Row Motorsports, which went through all sorts of contortions to keep its cars running in the top 35, rotating rookie Kevin Conway into whichever car was most comfortably above the cutoff.

Sponsorship of a race team is a tough sell, because it's not cost-effective purely as advertising. It is really a marketing avenue, that is almost unmatched in potential.

What I'd like to do is to examine potential sponsors for NASCAR's national series, particularly the Sprint Cup series, and ask "why aren't they in this sport?"

There are a several criteria that I think make sense to use to determine a potential NASCAR sponsor's suitability.

One, does it have sufficient revenue and profit for a top-level sponsorship to make financial sense? A full-year Sprint Cup series primary sponsorship costs in the neighborhood of $15-20 million, so you're probably looking at companies with at least $1 billion in profits, for the top series.

Secondly, are the companies' primary operations should not be highly regional. It wouldn't make sense, for instance, for a company like PG&E, which is really a single-state operation, to market to a national audience.

Finally, is NASCAR a good fit for the company? Unlike in past years, sponsors need not be automotive suppliers, but there are probably some companies which just don't fit culturally (fewer and fewer all the time, in my opinion, but they still exist).

So, here's my list. Some of these may have a small or occasional presence already, but I am suggesting they go "all in":

1. Wal-Mart - Where the heck are they? I thought they'd certainly be sponsoring the 24 car in 2011, but they apparently want to be involved in NASCAR in a broader role. They are going to be the primary licensed merchandiser in their sector. I suppose that makes sense, and that they would have a potential conflict of interest if they were on the quarter panels of one particular car is at least plausible

2. Chevron - I understand that there are some limitations on oil company sponsorships, due to the exclusivity deal NASCAR has with Sunoco (another issue for another day, perhaps). But I think they could get around it by using Chevron Delo oil or some other related product.

3. ConocoPhillips - see above.

4. Hewlett-Packard - I think they'd be a good fit, because of their fairly extensive consumer presence, and a very significant small business product line, which could be enhanced by a NASCAR marketing program. With $7.5 billion in profits, they could certainly afford it.

5. IBM - They're not quite as good a fit as H-P, since they have less of a consumer and small business presence. But, NASCAR is sometimes used for institutional presence marketing, and IBM could use racing to keep their name front-and-center, and it would seem to them to be pocket change.

6. Proctor & Gamble  - This company had a large presence for many years in NASCAR, and was one of the pioneers of non-automotive-related sponsorship. They have largely dropped out of the sport, although they do still do associate or one-race sponsorships in the lower series. In these difficult times, they are the sort of company that still prospers, and could probably get themselves a good deal with a good team.

7. Johnson & Johnson - This is another healthy company with many well-known consumer (Q-Tips, Band-Aid, Listerine, Tylenol) and prescription products which would be a very good fit with a NASCAR team. They have been in the sport in the past, but not recently, I think.

8. Kraft - not as profitable as P&G or J&J, but still a solid company with potential to leverage NASCAR exposure.

9. Microsoft - While some other tech companies might not fit well in NASCAR, Microsoft, with its gaming products, seems like it could make NASCAR work for it. It might be a way to get an edge with its struggling mobile phone platform, as well. It's still profitable enough that this would not be a huge gamble.

10. Staples - Competitor Office Depot is heavily invested in the sport. You could argue that it makes it more difficult for Staples to stand out. But Lowes' presence in NASCAR certainly didn't keep The Home Depot out.