Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. waits in his garage during practice for the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 26, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads into the first turn during practice for the Brickyard 400 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, July 26, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- For sale by owner: Major sponsorship for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Act fast, time is running out.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not only looking for his first win of the season, he's still hunting for a big-bucks sponsor for 12 Sprint Cup races this season.
Earnhardt said he's not worried, a sign that perhaps Hendrick Motorsports has a deal on the horizon.
"It is important to try to fill out what we have this season and we will," Earnhardt said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I don't have any doubt at all that we will get that done. I think we almost have to look forward beyond that to try to find out who is going to be the partner that we can put a long term deal together that matches up with what we want to do in the future."
That's part of the problem. Hendrick and Earnhardt would love to find a primary sponsor that would fund what's left on this season's slate as well as 2014, and possibly beyond. With 16 races left, putting together a multi-year deal with a committed corporate backer seems almost impossible to pull off.
"It's just all the dollars and cents are accounted for at this point in the year," Earnhardt said. "That doesn't mean we can't put some things together and do some creative stuff with some people and some partners that we already have."
Earnhardt's sponsorship woes started when Pepsi, through Diet Mountain Dew and Amp, sliced its sponsorship from 20 races to five in 2013. The National Guard did bolster its support of the No. 88, going from 16 to 20 races. Earnhardt, who's made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship each of the last two seasons, is somewhat hindered in finding the right fit because of conflicts with committed corporate sponsors. For example, his Pepsi deal is the reason he ditched Budweiser when he signed with Hendrick for the 2008 season.
It's not like he doesn't have options. Earnhardt is one of the superstar faces of NASCAR. Even as the wins have dried up, he was still voted NASCAR's most popular driver for each of the last 10 years. Owner Rick Hendrick isn't interested in sponsors looking to work their way in for a race or two, or the kind of companies that would conflict with his corporate image.
Earnhardt was set to drive an unsponsored race at Daytona until Hendrick put the National Guard on the No. 88. He'll use the National Guard again for Sunday's race at Indy.
Another reason he can be picky: The sponsorship he does have on the 88 is so lucrative that he has one of the highest-funded cars in the garage even with available inventory.
He's also kept an eye on sponsorship for his Nationwide Series program competing under the JR Motorsports banner. Great Clips signed on as primary sponsor for 28 races this season. Great Clips and Hendrick on Friday announced a three-year extension through 2016 that bumped its primary sponsorship from three Cup races a season to 10 for Kasey Kahne's No. 5 Chevrolet. Great Clips also will serve as a major associate sponsor.
Great Clips will be on Kahne's car this weekend in Indianapolis and again for the Sept. 22 race at New Hampshire.
"They continue to see a great return on investment, and we're focused on continuing that trend by performing at a high level on the racetrack while delivering business wins," Hendrick said.
Earnhardt, though, said he didn't know how Great Clips' increase would affect its future relationship with his Nationwide program. He seems just as confident that he'll find the right sponsors.
"We have some potential to have some really interesting things announced down the road with that," he said. "Due to how well we've run this year and how we've been able to turn that program around, we definitely caught the eyes of a few sponsors and potential partners. So, we're looking a lot better on that front, too. I think everything is going to be fine. I don't believe anybody needs to be too concerned at this point."