We all know that NASCAR runs on corporate sponsorship. Corporate sponsors know that choosing the right driver to endorse their product can make all the difference in the eyes of the fans (and potential consumers).
Often times, it can be difficult to find the proper balance between on-track performance and off-track marketability; sponsors would prefer not to sacrifice one for the other.
The best, and often longest lasting, combinations of driver and sponsor occur when the driver can convincingly identify with the brand he is promoting. The driver can embody the traits of the brand in his driving, have some sort of history with it, or simply reach the right demographic of people to forge this connection.
From risk-takers hooking up with an energy drink company to a good ol' boy pitching beer, here are ten of the best driver and sponsor combinations in the sport over the past decade.
This combination mostly works because of Jeff's brother Ward having a history with the brand.
Caterpillar joined Bill Davis Racing in 1998 while the elder Burton was their driver. That combination won five races, including a Southern 500 at Darlington and the 2002 Daytona 500.
When AT&T was forced out of the sport at the end of 2008, the younger Burton was left without a sponsor.
With BDR having dropped like a stone in the ranks after Burton left, Caterpillar switched allegiances back to a member of the Burton family.
Robby Gordon has always been a bit of a gambler—both on the track and off. He spun out Jeff Gordon to win his first Winston Cup race in 2001, and has been known to race aggressively throughout his career in stock cars, Indy cars, and anything else.
Off the track, he took a huge step in 2005 by re-forming his own team, which had last raced at the Cup level in 2000, when his performance wasn't good enough to keep him at Richard Childress Racing.
In effect, Gordon put the last chips of his stock car career down on the table against the house of multi-car teams, and has done well enough to last five seasons as an owner-driver.
This one only lasted two years, but Garnier made a solid pick of a driver in Vickers. Not only was he a champion in the Busch Series driving for one of the top teams in NASCAR, his age (22) made him appealing to the younger demographic to which the Fructis brand was marketed.
It seems a long way back now, but Sterling Marlin drove under the Coors Light banner for eight seasons.
While he may not have maintained his 2001 and 2002 levels of performance over the entire eight-year stretch, he did nearly win them a championship in 2002, with a neck injury the only thing taking him out of the title hunt.
Had he succeeded, it would have been the first championship for a beer brand since Darrell Waltrip won for Budweiser in 1985.
Marlin's image was that of a beer-drinkin' good ol' boy from the state of Tennessee, and something about that always felt more natural than some of today's alliances—Kasey Kahne and Budweiser has just never felt right.
It seems like a long time ago now, but Dale Jarrett used to really "deliver" on the track, and that shared trait is what made him such a great driver for UPS.
In his first eight races with UPS on the hood, DJ scored three wins, and finished fifth in the standings that season.
In a relationship that spanned from 2001 to last year, Jarrett also featured in one of the most memorable advertising campaigns in NASCAR history, in which everybody from UPS executives, to former Formula One champion Jackie Stewart, to his father Ned, to everyday folks on the street, implored him to "race the truck."
Subway markets itself as a healthy alternative to fast food. Carl Edwards has perhaps the greatest physique in all of NASCAR, having posed shirtless for ESPN the Magazine and performing backflips after every race win.
When Subway started looking for a new driver to back after the 2008 season, and Aflac was looking to sell races on Edwards' car, the combination made a lot of sense—especially compared to their previous relationship with Tony Stewart (more on that later).
After his first career start in the then-NEXTEL Cup Series, a disastrous affair in which he spun multiple times, Tony Stewart called David Ragan "a dart without feathers."
It only makes sense then, that a company offering 24/7 roadside assistance to drivers in trouble would want to sponsor him.
After leaving Ragan and Roush Fenway Racing, AAA hooked up with Penske Racing and Sam Hornish Jr., another driver who has seen his fair share of accidents in his Cup career.
Tony Stewart gets a lot of heat for his less-than-skinny figure. This is why the partnership he had with Subway last year didn't work so well.
Unlike Jared Fogle, Smoke has never shown an intention to drop exorbitant amounts of weight by eating healthy.
Partnering up with a company that uses 670-calorie flame-broiled burgers as its key marketing tool makes a lot more sense for a man of Stewart's—uh—girth.
I don't recall a single Viagra commercial that Mark Martin ever did. Come to think of it, I can't really recall any commercials that Mark Martin ever did. But Pfizer's decision to hook up with one of the elder statesmen of NASCAR in 2001 connected them to the right demographic for their product—older men.
The on-track performance hasn't always been solid, but nobody can suggest that any of Red Bull's three primary drivers over the past three years didn't fit the brand's marketing campaigns. Young and flashy all, Vickers, Speed, and the 'Dinger all represent the new generation of NASCAR drivers, who are no longer simply race car drivers but pitchmen as well.