Name Recognition: The Best Driver-Sponsor Combinations in NASCAR
Victory lane is the place that 43 drivers compete every Sunday to end up at. Whether the race is 400 miles, 500 miles, or even 600 miles, at the end of the day, it's all about the checkered flag.
Once that car rolls into victory lane, the driver gets out, celebrates with the crew and then comes the television time. Of course, they thank their owner, the crew chief, fans, but also go into detail about the names on the car.
Each race, you hear comments like, "Gotta thank our sponsors, Goodyear, Chevrolet/Ford/Dodge/Toyota, etc." Each victory, each interview after climbing out of the car, the sponsors are mentioned.
Of course these people deserve recognition, it's their sponsorship that helps put the drivers on the track in the first place. The name on the hood not only makes it easy to find the driver, but it also increases the sales of the company come Monday. "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday" continues in NASCAR by leaps and bounds.
A lot of times, simply by saying the sponsor, fans will match the driver. It's become that big of a deal.
I figured it would be appropriate to take a look back at some of the most recognized driver-sponsor combinations to ever hit the track. Some are famous, some were short lived, but all have special meaning.
The Original: Richard Petty and STP
Who better to start off the sponsorship trend than the King himself, Richard Petty.
Throughout the 1960s, when NASCAR was on it's muscle car run, the big sponsors for many drivers came from local areas. Car dealerships, engine shops, and local businesses were the people that gave funding for the teams to run each weekend.
But, as the season began getting longer, it began to get tough to get enough people to put their name on the cars to keep racing.
In 1971, when R.J. Reynolds took over title sponsorship of NASCAR's top series, Petty was the top driver in the sport. Shortly after the season ended, STP approached Petty with an offer to put their name on his car for an entire season.
Petty agreed, and at the season-opening event at Riverside, CA, in 1972, Petty rolled out a Petty blue and torch red No. 43 Plymouth. At that moment, a new era began in NASCAR. It would be the first time a corporate sponsor would come on board for an entire season in NASCAR, and would soon lead to the most infamous combination in the sport's history.
STP would remain the primary sponsor for Petty for all his big moments, including his record seventh championship, his seventh victory in the Daytona 500, and his unprecidented 200th career victory.
When he retired in 1992, STP stayed committed to the team, remaining on the car as the famed No. 43 was piloted by a new driver.
The primary sponsorship with STP would end midway through the 2000 season, but they remain with the team to this day as an associate sponsor.
To this day, STP has been the longest-running primary sponsor in NASCAR history with 27 and a half years.
The King was always one to reach milestones, but in this case, he was the original sponsored driver.
The Commitment: Jeff Gordon and DuPont
It's not often that a driver in NASCAR comes in with one sponsor and has them remain there for the entirety of their career. In the case of Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 Chevrolet, that is the case.
Gordon entered Cup competition in 1992, only racing in one event. Behind the wheel of a brightly painted, rainbow schemed car, Gordon began promoting DuPont Automotive Finishes, a line of automotive paint.
Since that first race, DuPont has not wavered from their commitment to this team. As the years progressed, the success followed. Gordon won Rookie of the Year in 1993, then got his first victory in 1994, and followed up with his first championship in 1995.
Fans began harping on Gordon because of how the car looked, and began questioning his relationship preference. It could be seen as some fans made some shirts making reference to it. Call it motivation as Gordon went on to win two more championships in that rainbow hued car.
In 2001, it was time for a change, and the Hendrick team decided to revamp the paint on the DuPont Chevrolet. Gone were the rainbows, and enter the flames. The fans took to this look right away, voting it best paint job four years in a row.
The car went from a red and metallic blue scheme to a jet black, orange, and yellow look last season, which many have said is the best look of any car he's ever raced.
Gordon himself has a commitment to Hendrick Motorsports, as he has a lifetime contract to drive the No. 24 car. DuPont has been there since day one, and it appears that they will stay committed to this team until Gordon decides to call it a career.
If there's a definition for sponsor commitment, DuPont has proven it with Gordon.
The King of Beers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Budweiser
There is without question no driver more beloved or followed than Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's the one driver that fans flock to each weekend, successful, or not, and he at the same time gives back to his fans.
But, before the debacle with his team in regards to ownership and contracts, he had the car that fans easily could recognize on the track.
When Junior entered Cup competition in 1999, Budweiser was already a top sponsor in the sport. At the same time, they also had a contract with Hendrick Motorsports to sponsor their No. 25 car, driven by Ricky Craven at the time.
However, their contract was up at the end of the year, and decided to sponsor the next up-and-coming star in the sport. At that time, his No. 8 car became the ride that fans wanted to watch and cheer for. Whether you called it the Bud car, the 8, Driver 8 or anything else, fans knew who was being talked about.
Budweiser was there for his first victory at Texas in 2000, his win in the All-Star Race, his domination at Talladega between 2001 and 2004, and his emotional wins at Daytona in July 2001 and February 2004.
Following 2007, this combination was no more as Junior moved to the No. 88 of Hendrick, while the No. 8 remained with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The No. 8 has not been on the track since last year because of sponsorship, meaning one of the most recognized numbers may not see the track again. Budweiser has since moved on and joined Kasey Kahne.
But, the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy of Earnhardt Jr. will forever be credited with being the one that put NASCAR's most popular driver on the map.
The Honor: Multiple Drivers and the U.S. Army
It's not very often that one sponsor can be associated with many different drivers. But, for a certain few, that association is a real honor.
It was 1991 when the U.S. Army first put their name on a stock car, sponsoring Alan Kulwicki in the Daytona 500. Considering that Desert Storm was being fought, it was a smart move to have the Army and all the other branches of the armed forces on a sport that is filled with American pride.
Since then, many different drivers have had the Army sponsorship in some way on their cars. In 2000, Bobby Hamilton had the name at Charlotte for the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600.
A few years later, it was the No. 01 driven by Joe Nemachek honoring the military. Even Joe's mother, Martha, got into it as she had an entire outfit made up for each weekend that car was on the track.
Mark Martin got the honor of having the Army on his car in 2007 and 2008, and he nearly put them in victory lane at the Daytona 500.
Currently, Ryan Newman runs the Army colors on his No. 39 car for Stewart-Haas Racing, an honor that he enjoys.
Every race, men and women in uniform come out to the track and stand in the pit of the team. It shows a lot of pride when the men and women protecting the country stand in the the pit stall for three hours to watch a race.
But, it's because of them that we all can enjoy the sport of stock car racing, so making that little sacrifice is well worth it.
The Refreshment: Jeff Gordon and Pepsi
No matter where you go to watch NASCAR, every track allows the fans to bring their own beer to drink. But, at the same time, not everyone can enjoy a beer during the race.
So, fans decide to tweak the BYOB wording and decide to bring their own beverage. A close second to favorite drinks at the track behind beer is soda, or pop to some of you.
Soft drinks have been a part of NASCAR for going on 30 years, starting back in the 1970s with Bobby Allison and his Coca-Cola racer.
Today, Coca-Cola remains an official sponsor of NASCAR, actually becoming the drink of choice for a majority of the tracks. But, one driver has gone against the grain and has stuck with the competition for 13 years.
Jeff Gordon and Pepsi teamed up in 1997, actually after he spent three years being sponsored by Coca-Cola. His first race out with Pepsi as an associate sponsor, he won the Daytona 500. A few years after, Pepsi approached him to sponsor a then-Busch Series car for a few races. Gordon accepted, actually putting the car in victory lane twice.
In 2001, Pepsi then upped their program and sponsored Gordon for two races in the Cup Series. However, it wouldn't be until 2004 that Pepsi saw victory lane in Cup competition. After a tough battle with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega, a late caution secured Gordon the victory, despite protests from fans.
That same year, in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Gordon had to do battle with Coke's promotion of their C2 drink. The entire Coca-Cola "Racing Family" had the name on their hood, but in the end, Gordon's Pepsi car was in victory lane.
Pepsi has also provided unique paint schemes for Gordon. This included the Star Wars' movies, Superman, the Billion Dollar contest, and a throwback to Waltrip's "Pepsi Challenger" from 1983.
This year, Gordon will be promoting the Pepsi Max product on his car, and the partnership appears to be continuing for many more years.
Coca-Cola may be the official soft drink, but when it comes to Gordon, Pepsi certainly has refreshed everything.
The Restaurant: Alan Kulwicki and Hooters
Every so often, there comes a sponsor that appeals to just one genre. This sponsor not only appealed to a genre, it appealed to a gender.
In 1991, Alan Kulwicki was in a tough spot as his sponsor from the previous year, Zerex, had just left, leaving his team little funding. They had enough to go to a certain point in the season, but possibly couldn't run the entire schedule.
Then comes along a restaurant chain based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Starting in 1983, Hooters had become a very popular eat-in establishment, known for their music, wings, and especially the ladies. They were looking for a new way to market their chain, and thought putting their name on a stock car would help immensely.
Considering NASCAR was, and still is, a predominantly male sport, the combination seemed perfect. So, Kulwicki took the sponsorship and began running the car with the familiar white and orange Hooters colors.
Although the first season was rough, one year later Hooters got to savor a lot of success. The battle between Kulwicki and Bill Elliott all season was one that no one could keep their eyes from. Throw in Davey Allison and it was a three-way battle for the title.
In the end, because of one lap, it was Kulwicki taking the championship over Elliott by just 10 points.
Hooters stayed with Kulwicki in 1993 until his untimely and tragic death prior to Bristol.
There's no telling how great Kulwicki would have been, nor how long Hooters would have remained on the car. But, for a short period of time, the Hooters girls had something to cheer for every Sunday.
The Champion: Jimmie Johnson and Lowe's
Much like Gordon, Jimmie Johnson entered NASCAR with one primary sponsor on the hood of the car.
Even with a few races during his introduction in 2001, Lowe's came over and decided to start sponsoring this driver that Gordon himself recommended be put in the car he and Rick Hendrick owned.
The No. 48 Lowe's car made it's official full-season debut in 2002, sporting a blue and silver paint scheme. What did Johnson do in his debut? Only qualify on the pole for the Daytona 500.
Nine years later, Johnson has solidified the Lowe's team as the dominant team in NASCAR. He has not finished outside the top five in any of his seasons in Cup, and has rewrote the record books on countless occasions. Most importantly, he is the only man to win four consecutive championships at the highest level in NASCAR.
Lowe's has not waivered in their backing from Johnson, signing an extension to remain with the team for another six years. When you think of the No. 48, automatically the sponsor comes to mind. The team is that recognized and has garnered that because of Johnson's accomplishments.
It appears that Lowe's knows a winner. They're the leading home improvement store, and they have the top driver in NASCAR. That's a very good trade off.
The Intimidator: Dale Earnhardt and GM Goodwrench
Without question, this is the most recognized car in all of NASCAR. When drivers saw that hood in the rear-view mirror, they knew business had just picked up.
In 1988, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress unveiled a new sponsor for the No. 3 car. Wrangler was stepping down to an associate role and GM Goodwrench was taking over. Along with the new sponsor came a new look. Gone were the bright yellow and royal blue and enter in black and silver.
The Intimidator was born.
For 13 years, GM Goodwrench stayed on the car of Earnhardt, and no once did RCR decide to change the look. It was simple, clean, and recognized. Sure, the name on the side changed every now and then, as did the logo on the hood, but it was the same car.
GM Goodwrench was there when Earnhardt won his seventh title, when he debuted the first specialty paint scheme, and when he finally took victory in the Daytona 500.
They were there for the highs, the lows, the disasters, the joy, and unfortunately, were on board for the sacrifice. His last race in the 2001 Daytona 500 would be the last time GM Goodwrench and Earnhardt would ever be combined. The following week, the car was white, a new number on the door, and a new driver was at the wheel.
But, throughout the vast history of NASCAR, fans young, old, past, present and future will forever recognize the tandem of GM Goodwrench and Earnhardt.