When I take my four-year-old son to Lowe’s, which happens more than I care to admit, he insists on riding in the Jimmie Johnson buggy/racecar. The blue No. 48-emblazoned shopping cart is usually hard to come by on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of suburbia, but we always try and often end up switching halfway through the electrical department.
In his mind Lowe’s and Johnson are the synonymous, but this is the same kid who is having a hard time dealing with his two favorite drivers — Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott — not being in the Nos. 21 and 24, respectively.
I am not sure how I am going to explain to him next year why Johnson is no longer driving the Lowe’s car (mind you, he can’t read, but he recognizes the logo) and he can’t get the No. 48 buggy (which they probably will still have, but he will know and it won’t be the same). In his defense, it’s going to be hard for me to wrap my mind around.
Lowe’s and Hendrick Motor Sports announced last week that the home improvement giant, founded in Wilkesboro, will not return as the sponsor of seven-time Cup champion Johnson after the 2018 season.
“The No. 48 team is a valuable property and has been an integral part of building the Lowe’s brand, which makes today’s decision difficult as we now look to invest in other strategic initiatives,” said Michael P. McDermott, Lowe’s chief customer officer in a statement. “Although we are evolving our strategy, there’s no question that being a part of seven championships and many history-making moments has been valuable for Lowe’s.”
Lowe’s is the only sponsor Johnson has had in his 17-year career and Lowe’s/Johnson pairing is one of very few sponsor/driver combos that extend for 38 races a year (Denny Hamlin has FedEx for 38 races this year, which hasn’t been always been the case).
Everyone else pieces together sponsorship for the whole season. Blaney has seven primary sponsors in 2018 and teammate Brad Keselowski is backed by six companies this year. The other Hendrick cars are running at least three primaries this year.
While Lowe’s has been with Johnson for nearly two decades, their involvement with NASCAR goes longer than that. Lowe’s sponsored Mike Skinner (the American in the first season of The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime, which you should watch) and Richard Childress Racing from 1998-2001, Junior Johnson’s team in 1995 and Geoff Bodine in 1996.
One of my favorite writers — not just in NASCAR — Ryan McGee of ESPN rated Lowe’s move as a 10 on the panic scale.
“This was the brand you could turn to and say, ‘Well, yeah, sure, it’s bad right now, but yes, there is still a huge corporation that will do a full season of primary sponsorship!’ McGee wrote. “…That marriage between Lowe’s and Johnson is one of the longest, most successful runs of all time. But the departure is just a bad look for the sport as a whole.”
Lowe’s follows Target, Miller, Home Depot, Dollar General, UPS, Office Depot, Subway and others who have completely left or scaled back their involvement with NASCAR over the last few years.
More ominous, Monster Energy, the entitlement sponsor the NASCAR Cup Series, has not re-upped the partnership for 2019 and asked the sanctioning body for an extension to make a determination for continuing the relationship beyond this season.
For his part, Johnson, 42, is planning on staying in the sport beyond this season, despite the uncertain sponsorship situation.
“I’ll always be grateful to Lowe’s for taking a chance on me and believing that I could win,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure where I’d be right now if they hadn’t committed to the No. 48 team. It’s hard to see them move on, but we’ve made history together and celebrated so much success on and off the track. There’s still a lot left to do in 2018.
“I have more to accomplish in this sport. I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically. I’m motivated. I’m focused on winning races and chasing more championships. Someone will be a big part of writing that story with us. I’m not going anywhere.”
That’s good optimism, but finding someone (or someones) to fill the Lowe’s void will be a tall task.
I’m not sure what Lowe’s is paying, but I’m sure it’s not a small amount to keep that team running as well as it has for so long. Johnson is signed through 2020 to compete with Hendrick.
I’d be willing to bet the majority of sponsors for Johnson in 2019 are involved now and will be moving to the No. 48 from another team. So, no, or few, new companies entering (or re-entering) the sport.
As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the economic model for NASCAR doesn’t work any more. There just is not enough money to go around and the teams are bearing the brunt of it.
With small fields (only 33 drivers have started each of the first five races of 2018) and a growing number of cars that are simply field fillers, something has to be done or NASCAR will be going the way of my kid’s buggy.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.