What happened: Hendrick Motorsports announced Lowe’s will not return to the team next season, meaning Jimmie Johnson will have a new primary sponsor for the first time in his career. Lowe’s, which has been the No. 48 team’s sponsor since 2001, said it will “now look to invest in other strategic initiatives.” Johnson’s contract runs through 2020, and he made it clear he’s “not going anywhere” despite being 42 years old. “I have more to accomplish in this sport,” he said. “I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically. I’m motivated. I’m focused on winning races and chasing more championships. Someone (a new sponsor) will be a big part of writing that story with us.”
What it means: This is the end of an era in several ways. First of all, Johnson, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports, the 48 car and Lowe’s have all so tied together for such a long time, and now Lowe’s won’t be there. It’s going to be very strange to see Johnson promoting a different company next season (and yes, I think he will race for at least two more years). But perhaps more significant for NASCAR, Lowe’s was one of the last remaining full-season sponsors on a car — something that was once the norm. Kroger and its various brands do all of AJ Allmendinger’s races and FedEx had 34 races on Denny Hamlin’s car last season (Sport Clips did two), so that’s basically the next-closest thing. But other than that, even many of the biggest sponsors only do half or one-third of the season anymore. That has increased demands on the drivers, because it’s essentially tripled or quadrupled the amount of contractual appearances and promotional work they must do, put a financial strain on the teams to constantly chase new money and made it more difficult for casual fans to follow the racing since the paint schemes change every week.
News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. It’s pretty significant when the seven-time champion and perhaps the greatest driver in history loses his full-season sponsor, especially when it was the longest sponsor/team combination in NASCAR. Though this news alone does not mean NASCAR is in trouble or somehow dying, it should be viewed as a significant point when writing about the sport’s history and recent struggles.
Three questions: Will Hendrick be able to sign another sponsor for the full season, or will Johnson be juggling several companies? What made Lowe’s decide to leave altogether, rather than simply cut back or reduce its involvement? What kind of impact, if any, will this ultimately have on how long Johnson decides to race?