By Ernie Saxton / October 5, 2023 / Column, Ernie Saxton

According to Race Business Journal’s ADAM STERN, a glut of sponsor inventory in sports continues to test the mettle of NASCAR teams.

With NASCAR enjoying some of its strongest momentum in years, the sport’s teams continue to face a tough road in securing or retaining sponsorships with major consumer brands, challenges created by the rise of social media marketing, the trend of brands wanting more flexibility in their spending, and a glut of inventory in the marketplace among stick-and-ball sports and other properties.

“The state of sponsorship and sponsorship sales [in racing] — I think it’s harder than it’s ever been because there are so many options in the marketplace,” said Jacob Wyne, vice president of partnership sales at RFK Racing, which is partially owned by Fenway Sports Group.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, I felt like finding sponsorship in NASCAR was like shooting fish in a barrel,” Wyne said. “Now you have jersey patches in the NBA. Specifically at FSG, we’re in the market trying to sell a helmet position for the [Pittsburgh] Penguins, a [Boston] Red Sox jersey patch deal. Those [pieces of inventory] didn’t exist 15 years ago.”

Because many brands these days only want to sponsor part of a season, NASCAR teams must string together multiple partners to make the math work. And often those deals are more likely to be with challenger brands instead of the blue-chip companies that have the marketing muscle to drive consumer engagement.

At the 2005 Daytona 500, approximately 60% of primary sponsors on Cup Series cars were part of the Fortune 500; by 2023, that had fallen to around 20%. Among the departures over that time: were Caterpillar, Dollar General, Farmers Insurance, GoDaddy, Home Depot, Jimmy John’s, Lowe’s, Mars, Mountain Dew, Oscar Mayer, and Subway.

NASCAR says that 25% of Fortune 500 companies remain invested in the sport. The sanctioning body’s four premier partners are Busch Beer, Coca-Cola, Geico, and Xfinity — large companies that all have powerful marketing megaphones.

Still, the added competition for sponsors, and decreases in TV ratings and attendance from the sport’s peak, have contributed to high-profile exits or spending cuts. For example, Miller Lite once sponsored Team Penske for most of the season but as of last season, parent Molson Coors had reduced its presence to primary sponsor for only one points race with its Keystone Light brand. At Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx was once the season-long sponsor of the team’s No. 11 Toyota, but it’s now down to closer to half of the season.

NASCAR teams rely on sponsorship for roughly 65%-80% of their annual total revenue. A full-season sponsorship with top drivers cost $25 million-$30 million at its peak a decade ago, but now many brands say they no longer need the full campaign. Sponsorship revenue remains relatively healthy for NASCAR’s best teams, though most bring in annual sponsor revenue that hews closer to $10 million-$20 million these days.

NASCAR still has a strong message. Because of how sponsorship has been woven so deeply into the field of play, surveys over the years have routinely pointed to NASCAR fans as among the most brand loyal in sports. That was just reinforced: NASCAR’s official partnerships with Goodyear and Coca-Cola are the two most recognizable sponsorships in sports, Sports Business Journal reported earlier this month.

NASCAR has been building a comeback story since its heyday ended sometime around the 2008 global financial crisis. The sport has shown a willingness in recent years to shake things up on everything from the race cars themselves to investing heavily on new events such as this month’s street race in Chicago.

At the same time, Formula One has seen its stature in the U.S. rise and, with that, added interest from sponsors. Tennessee-based Jack Daniel’s was formerly in NASCAR but now has a partnership in F1, as do other higher-profile brands such as Chipotle and Google.

The Chicago race demonstrated some of the forces at work in team sponsorship. New Zealand driver Shane Van Gisbergen won in his NASCAR debut, becoming the first driver in 60 years to do so. Red Bull sponsors the car Van Gisbergen normally races in Australia’s Supercars Series but stayed parked for the Chicago race; Red Bull ended its primary sponsorship of a NASCAR team in 2011. Sponsoring Van Gisbergen’s No. 91 Chevrolet instead was Enhance Health, a little-known insurance brokerage started in 2021.

The departure of a major team sponsor often sparks a patchwork approach for finding replacements. After Joe Gibbs Racing lost its $25 million annual deal with M&M’s on driver Kyle Busch’s car after last season, Busch switched to Richard Childress Racing, where he now has a host of sponsors such as cannabis company 3Chi, Alsco, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Lenovo, Lucas Oil and McLaren Custom Grills. At JGR, Busch was replaced by Ty Gibbs, whose sponsors this year have included Monster Energy and Christian nonprofit He Gets Us. After Chase Elliott lost Mountain Dew as a sponsor at Hendrick Motorsports, the brand was replaced by A-Shoc Energy Drink, which then left him two years later. Elliott has since been picked up by Coca-Cola.

The trends have an impact because newer B2C companies and B2B brands of all stripes can have smaller consumer bases than retail giants. That leads to less powerful first-party databases and marketing potential as a result. In NASCAR’s heyday, it was nearly impossible to go into a race market and not know the sport was in town because of all the retail, bar and billboard activation. That’s not always the case anymore.

“The needs of marketers and sales teams have changed over the years,” said Ashlee Huffman, managing director of U.S. operations for sports marketing agency Right Formula, which has a presence in racing. “NASCAR’s sponsorship was a model in the U.S. [at its height] … I remember when it was a selling point to say to your brand, ‘You can be front and center with this audience you’re trying to reach for 38 races a year.’ But today, brands want to be more flexible with their dollars, so the spend levels are challenging and it takes more [sponsors to hit the budget].”

As a sanctioning body, NASCAR has a host of blue-chip sponsors, and this year has more official sponsors than ever, but it too has taken on some challenger brands and B2B companies over the years. Its official credit card is Credit One Bank, while new sponsors this year have included Leidos, Powerball, RTIC coolers, and tequila brand Cabo Wabo.

NASCAR has no official quick service restaurant and many of the QSRs that are culturally popular with the sport’s fan base and industry — like Chick-Fil-A and Waffle House — sit on the sidelines or, such as Sonic, stick with ad buys during race coverage. Still, there’s been a recent bright spot in this category, with Wendy’s doing activations around major NASCAR races.

NASCAR did not comment for this story but officials have said the sport continues to work to provide a variety of entry points for brands, whether it’s on or off the track, on the cars themselves, on race broadcasts, or through digital platforms.

Teams still have success stories. 23XI Racing has used the combined star power of co-owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin to build a sponsorship roster of largely blue-chip consumer brands such as Columbia Sportswear, Dr Pepper, DraftKings, McDonald’s, and Walmart.

Trackhouse Racing has blue-chip wins of its own, but co-owner Justin Marks said last year that he thought NASCAR was simply becoming more suited for challenger brands that are still scaling up since some major consumer brands have nearly 100% brand awareness in America. In addition to high-profile sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Jockey, and Quaker State, other Trackhouse sponsors include Freeway Insurance, Nashville honky tonk Tootsies and Worldwide Express. Next year, it will add Anheuser-Busch’s Busch Beer brand to the fold.

Indeed, challenger brands can be found in every top league as teams there face similar challenges securing partners in a market flooded with inventory.

One major company that remains in NASCAR is Kroger, which has a full-season sponsorship with JTG Daugherty Racing. It uses a model whereby Kroger and JTG work with vendors that sell products in Kroger grocery stores to supplement the spending and share in advertising and hospitality opportunities.

“The way I look at it is there are two ways the sponsorship model in this sport works, and that’s B2B or B2C,” said Paul Zindrick, vice president of corporate partnerships at JTG. “There’s a lot of NASCAR sponsors and teams who do B2B really well because they have another business that’s complementary and that creates opportunities for them to leverage the NASCAR industry to create business opportunities for those partners.”

Examples of that include Hendrick Motorsports, whose sponsors include several vendors that work with team owner Rick Hendrick’s car dealership empire. Roger Penske has a similar structure, with the most prominent example being Shell.

What has made JTG’s B2C-based model with Kroger work, Zindrick said, is having owners who deeply understand the consumer-packaged goods space; delivering tangible and trackable results to Kroger and its partners; and the fact that NASCAR as a sport has stabilized.

That last factor, as well as how NASCAR continues to take chances to grow its fan base, provides optimism for teams. NBC attracted 4.632 million viewers for the Chicago race, the best for a NASCAR race on that channel since the 2017 Homestead championship. Those sorts of results catch the eye of brands.

Teams also are buoyed by the recent influx of new ownership. Spire Motorsports first talked to TD Bank about opportunities with the minor league hockey teams it owns and that led to a deal with Spire’s NASCAR team. RFK has benefited by working closely with FSG, and there’s hope that Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment investing in Joe Gibbs Racing could bring joint sponsorships with fellow HBSE properties the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils.

Huffman, the agent from Right Formula, noted that she’s seen members of her own family re-engage with NASCAR in recent years as the sport has tried out new approaches to its business, which she called “fascinating.”

“Even when you look at the decline NASCAR has seen in live audiences and big brands being involved [from its peak], they still have a massive fan base,” she added. “When you put NASCAR’s fan base up against these other sports with week-in, week-out viewership, as a brand, you still have an opportunity to reach a significant audience.”

ESPN Senior Writer tells us to celebrate NASCAR's 75th anniversary, we're detailing our 75 favorite things about the pinnacle of stock car racing. Illustration by ESPN

We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series' 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.

Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We've got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.

Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.

Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars

Five biggest cheaters

We're not quite to the halfway point of our series of NASCAR 75 top-five greatest lists, but we can see the crossed flags off in the distance ... or wait ... is that a black flag telling us to pull into the pits and serve a penalty? After looking at drivers, races, and cars, it's time to turn the microscope on those who worked tirelessly to enter those drivers and cars into races by sneaking things past NASCAR tech inspectors. The crew chiefs and engineers lived their racing lives in the gray area of the rulebook.

Yeah, I'll say it. Cheaters. But when I say "cheaters," understand what the paddock already does, that you can't apply a stick-and-ball definition of "cheater" (see: Patriots, Astros, etc.) to a racer.

The greatest NASCAR teams and mechanics wear that title as a badge of honor. Sure, getting caught might lead to fines penalties, and embarrassment, but those are all temporary. The garage glory comes in the winks and nods and pats on the back from rivals as they say, "Dude, way to push the limits. I wish I had thought of that!"

 So, grab a bottle of tire softener and a can of nitrous disguised as a fire extinguisher and read ahead as we present our top five greatest cheaters in NASCAR history.

Honorable mention: Glenn Dunnaway

Poor Dunnaway went from historic hero to timeless goat in the matter of one postrace inspection -- the very first postrace inspection in NASCAR Cup Series history.

It was June 19, 1949, and the 1-year-old sanctioning body was holding the first Strictly Stock event, the series that became what we now know as Cup, on a three-quarter-mile dirt track located just across the road from the current location of the massive international airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dunnaway, of nearby Gastonia, won the event by a full three laps, but inspectors ruled that his 1947 Ford was running illegally spaced rear springs, also known as "moonshiner springs," that violated the rules of being a straight-off-the-street stock car.

Dunnaway and car owner Hubert Westmoreland -- who had indeed made a moonshine run in that very car the night before -- were stripped of the victory, and it was given to Jim Roper, whose name remains etched in the NASCAR history books as its first Cup Series winner. For the entire story, including the lawsuit that followed, read this piece from 2019, the 70th anniversary of the race.

5. Chad Knaus

The oldest saying in NASCAR goes: "If you ain't cheating, you ain't winning." The NASCAR Hall of Fame is packed with racers who lived by that mantra, including the crew chief who was elected to the Hall earlier this month.

Knaus, who won 81 races and seven championships atop Jimmie Johnson's pit box was (and still is) notorious for outworking and outsmarting his competition on the track and the tech inspectors in the garage. There is a fine line between innovation and rule-breaking, and Knaus straddled that gray area like a Flying Wallenda tight roping across the Grand Canyon.

Still, he was suspended four times for four very different rules violations (he won back one of those via appeal) and was hit with a pair of $100,000 fines. In typical Knaus fashion, his team responded to the most infamous of those violations -- busted for making an illegal adjustment to the rear window during the 2006 Daytona 500 qualifying -- by winning that 500 as well as two of the first three races while he was sitting back at the Hendrick Motorsports shop.

4. Ray Evernham

In case you were wondering from whom Knaus learned his playbook ... well, here you go. Evernham rewrote more pages of the NASCAR rulebook than the people who actually wrote it.

No joke, when he became the crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports wunderkind Jeff Gordon in 1992, that rulebook wasn't thicker than a pamphlet with a staple holding it together. A decade and a half later, when he finished his tenure as a team owner, that book was thick and bound like it was ready for a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham won Cup Series championships together in 1995, 1997, and 1998. Focus on Sport via Getty Images

As the No. 24 Chevy piled up wins and championships, Evernham and Gordon were so dominant that their competition started frequently violating the unwritten don't-air-dirty-laundry-in-public code and accused Evernham of cheating with everything from suspension parts to "exotic metals" to Jack Roush's epic 1998 tirade on tire soaking, aka "Tiregate."

Evernham's Mona Lisa was the "T-Rex" Chevy specifically constructed to push the limits of the rulebook gray areas that were rolled out for the 1997 NASCAR All-Star Race. Gordon crushed the field. Afterward, NASCAR was so befuddled by the somehow technically legal car that it told Evernham to never bring it back to the racetrack again.

3. Michael Waltrip Racing

First off, there was never a collection of dudes working in a single race shop this century that you would have rather had beers with. Secondly, MWR won seven races and 14 poles during roughly 14 seasons in Cup, during which they also acted as Toyota's first flagship program.

Unfortunately, that tenure started with a bizarre controversy during the 2007 Daytona 500 qualifying when the MWR cars were caught with an illegal additive hidden in the fuel lines. The "rocket juice" was so blatant you could smell it as the Camrys rolled by in the garage after their qualifying runs. Later that year, Roush (I sense a theme here) accused MWR of stealing sway bars from his garage.

Then MWR was effectively ended at Richmond in 2013 when Clint Bowyer spun his car on purpose and Brian Vickers was told to pit, all to manipulate the outcome of the regular-season finale and help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase postseason field. The fallout was the most embarrassing in-race incident in NASCAR history and resulted in a record $300,000 fine, the removal of Truex from the Chase and an exit stage left by sponsor NAPA. Less than two years later, MWR was out of business.

Clint Bowyer infamously intentionally spun at Richmond in 2013, helping to get Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the postseason field. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

2. Gary Nelson

Speaking of the Waltrips, here's a guy who was calling the shots for Darrell Waltrip's first big Cup wins at DiGard Racing and won Daytona 500s with Geoff Bodine and Bobby Allison, as well as the 1983 title with Allison.

He also became known for his not-so-legal innovations. Those included the move called "bombs away," when Nelson would fill the car's roll cage with ball bearings and buckshot so his cars would make minimum weight during inspection, but during the race he would signal his driver to pull a hidden lever, opening a trapdoor and dumping the 300 pounds of metal balls into the infield grass. Recalled Nelson's last team boss, Felix Sabates: "I would see people after a race at Martinsville walking through the grass and tripping over those little balls, thinking, 'Where the hell did those come from?!'"

 How great was Nelson at bending rules? When legendary NASCAR technical director Dick Beaty retired in 1993, he hired Nelson as his replacement because "Gary was the guy who drove me nuts, but he also knows how everyone else drove me nuts, too."

1. Smokey Yunick

Y'all can debate all day and night about whether we get some of the No. 1s on these NASCAR 75 lists correct, but not this one. Henry "Smokey" Yunick is the greatest mechanic who ever built a race car, and his cars treated rulebooks like they were merely a list of suggestions.

Yunick once brought a Chevelle to the racetrack that was built to a seven-eighths scale to slip through the air faster. He filled roll cages with extra fuel. He inflated a basketball in an oversized fuel tank to make it seem legal when tested, then deflated it to make room for more gas during the race.

Angry officials once pulled one of his cars apart, including yanking the fuel cell out of the car completely and setting it on the ground, and handed him a list of nine items he needed to fix before he could race. He handed the list back, saying, "That should be 10 things," and was somehow still able to crank it up and drive away. When those same officials later cornered him, demanding to know how he was able to cheat on fuel, he famously replied, "I don't know what you're talking about, but if I did, I wouldn't tell you."

Yunick also holds 11 patents, including an early version of the SAFER barrier, and won 57 NASCAR races and two Cup Series championships as a crew chief and/or owner, plus the 1960 Indy 500. And yet, how much does Smokey's name still rankle the feathers of NASCAR officials? He has been elected to nearly two dozen motorsports halls of fame but has yet to even be nominated for the NASCAR Hall.

Hutch, the renowned automotive mobile game developer behind hit titles such as F1 Clash and Top Drives, has announced a new partnership with NASCAR. The partnership will see Hutch develop a new standalone title for mobile, combining the studio's expertise in creating automotive games with NASCAR’s world-renowned brand.

NASCAR, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is the sanctioning body for the No.1 form of motorsports in the United States and one of the most recognized motorsports organizations in the world. Offering fans high-speed, side-by-side racing with thrilling passing and aggressive strategy, NASCAR has reached a diverse global audience. With millions of fans worldwide and a rich history of high-octane racing, NASCAR is a perfect match for Hutch’s game development pedigree.

Hutch will lead the development of the new title in collaboration with NASCAR, working closely to build the ultimate mobile experience for fans around the globe. The new game, due to be fully revealed in due course, will leverage Hutch’s extensive development experience with licensed IPs to bring fans their dream game on mobile.

Peter Stott, Game Director at Hutch says: “The NASCAR brand is an ideal fit for Hutch. Our passion for motorsports and drive to create-genre-defining experiences for mobile will enable us to deliver for the many global fans of the sport. That same passion forms the foundation of our relationship with NASCAR, which will fuel our ability to make another hit Hutch title. We’re proud to be able to work with another key automotive licensor, continuing our rich history of partnered game development.”

Nick Rend, Managing Director, Gaming and Esports at NASCAR says: “At NASCAR, our number one priority is engaging our fans and bringing them the best experiences possible whether they’re at the track or in digital spaces where they like to spend time. We want to deliver our fans around the world a unique, immersive mobile gaming experience. Hutch, with its expertise in the automotive genre and track record of creating fun and popular games, is the perfect partner to make this happen.”

Eight miles southwest of Dover Motor Speedway, Miles the Monster is in a new, agricultural form this autumn during the annual Fall Fest at Fifer’s.

This year, Fifer’s famous walk-through cornfield, now in its 18th year, is known as the “Motor Maze, presented by Dover Motor Speedway,” featuring Miles the Monster. The popular corn maze is open during Fall Fest at Fifer’s, which began Saturday, Sept. 23 and runs through Saturday, Nov. 4. The event is open Mondays-Saturdays and closed on Sundays.

In addition to Miles’ inclusion in the corn maze, Dover Motor Speedway’s display at the event features the famous Monster Trophy, the Mach 1 Ford Mustang pace car, giveaways, enter-to-win NASCAR tickets and photo opportunities, as well as information about the 2024 NASCAR weekend.

Dover’s display is open for seven consecutive Saturdays having gotten started on September 23.

“We are thrilled to partner in this longtime Delaware tradition,” said Gary Camp, vice president of marketing and communications for Dover Motor Speedway and executive director, of Speedway Children’s Charities Dover Motor Speedway chapter. “Much like we feel about our annual NASCAR race weekend, a visit to Fifer’s in the fall is a can’t-miss experience for everyone from our region. This partnership is win-win, and we hope to use the opportunity to engage with guests to raise funds and awareness for our SCC DMS efforts to deliver much-needed support to children in our community.”

Fall activities for kids of all ages, games, the popular corn maze and farm fresh food items are the centerpiece of Fall Fest at Fifer’s, from picking pumpkins and apples to grabbing cider and donuts from the Farm Store. Located at 1919 Allabands Mill Road in Camden-Wyoming, Delaware, Fifer’s has been a staple of the First State’s agricultural community since its founding in 1919. Approximately 100,000 guests will visit Fall Fest over the course of the season.

Visit for more information and a full list of Fall Fest at Fifer’s activities.

Spire Motorsports will roll out the welcome mat and host NASCAR fans to a rare, behind-the-scenes look at its Concord, N.C.-based headquarters on Friday, October 6 as part of activities surrounding the NASCAR Cup Series (NCS) Bank of America ROVAL™ 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

 Situated just behind Charlotte’s legendary 1.5-mile oval on Victory Lane, Spire Motorsports is home to the Nos. 7 and 77 Chevrolet Camaros driven by Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon in NASCAR’s premier division. The team’s historic race shop is the former home of 1992 NCS Champion Alan Kulwicki.

 The day’s events will run from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., and feature music from DJ James Stanley, a food truck by Sandwich Express, show cars, Spire Motorsports merchandise, RC racing, raffles and access to the race shop floor. The first 50 fans will also receive complimentary gift bags.

 All raffle ticket proceeds will be donated directly to the Jessie Rees Foundation.

 The Jessie Rees Foundation was inspired by a courageous and compassionate 11-year-old girl named Jessica Joy Rees, who was best known as “Jessie.” Friends and family describe Jessie as a faith-filled, athletic, caring, and loving girl who courageously fought two brain tumors from March 3, 2011, to January 5, 2012.

 During Jessie’s courageous fight, she realized thousands of other kids fighting cancer couldn’t leave the hospital. This burden inspired Jessie to create her fun filled JoyJars, 64 oz. plastic jars stuffed to the very top with new, age-appropriate toys, games, and activities for kids fighting cancer. Jessie also visited kids fighting cancer and encouraged them with her message and motto to NEGU (Never Ever Give Up).  Before losing her fight to cancer, she filled more than 3,000 JoyJars with family and friends and encouraged thousands more to NEGU.

 Fan day activities will be highlighted by driver autograph sessions, followed by the Gainbridge 300 RC car race at NEGU Speedway, where one lucky fan will be chosen, at random, to compete against Spire Motorsports’ drivers. NASCAR Chief Hype Officer Mamba Smith will be on hand for driver introductions prior to the national anthem.

 “We’re thrilled to showcase our race team and race shop to fans who are in the area for the NASCAR weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway,” said Spire Motorsports president Bill Anthony. “We’re always looking for new and creative ways to engage with our fans but this time, we’re excited to do it the old-fashioned way by rolling out the welcome mat and opening our doors. We have a great fan experience planned and are looking forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones along the way. At the same time, we’re proud to help raise money for the Jessie Rees Foundation to support children with pediatric cancer who never, ever give up.”

Another day, another rainout.

Despite a clear forecast, a persistent mist hovered over Georgetown Speedway on and off throughout the day this past Friday, forcing the postponement of the Gary Simpson Memorial ‘$12K for the 12K.’

A new date, Saturday, November 11, is in place for the highest-paying Modified event of the calendar year in the state of Delaware.