FONTANA, Calif. – Jimmie Johnson wishes he didn’t have to seek a sponsor for next season, but he doesn’t appear sweating the future after the announcement Wednesday that Lowe’s would leave the sport as a sponsor of Johnson’s and Hendrick Motorsports.
One of the rare full-season sponsors, Lowe’s said in a statement Wednesday that it had shifted its sponsorship strategy and would not sponsor any car next year. While its spend wasn’t public, it likely was in the $20-30 million range as Hendrick was getting more than $660,000 a race in a partial-season sponsorship from Farmers Insurance for Kasey Kahne in previous years and the National Guard was spending $32 million for sponsorship of 20 races and activation for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.
The announcement Wednesday, while not totally unexpected, still had a stinging effect on NASCAR, which has refused to comment on a seven-time Cup champion losing a sponsor. The public companies that own tracks reported admissions down 2.7 percent in 2017, the 10th consecutive year of falling admissions revenue albeit a much smaller decline than 7.4 percent in 2016. According to International Speedway Corp. annual reports, NASCAR Cup races on television averaged 4.1 million viewers per minute in 2017, down 10.9 percent of 4.6 million viewers in 2016.
“I see our sport growing,” Johnson said Friday before practice at Auto Club (California) Speedway. “I see many new sponsors coming into Hendrick Motorsports. I see a returning sponsor [in Busch and the 2018 pole award] coming to NASCAR.
“I’ve seen full grandstands. It’s been an exciting start to the season, so I really don’t feel it is a reflection on the sport.”
Lowe’s had sponsored Johnson since he debuted in the NASCAR Cup Series for a few races in 2001 and then full-time in 2002. The home improvement chain started its full-season NASCAR sponsorship in 1995 with Brett Bodine.
“It’s a business decision that Lowe’s needed to make,” Johnson said. “That stuff happens. If you look at how long they’ve been in the sport, I’m not sure there’s been a sponsor that stuck around this long.
“I’m very proud of their contributions to their industry.”
Johnson said the departure shouldn’t impact his future. He has a contract through 2020 and said he has not talked with anyone at Hendrick about what happens if it doesn’t find a sponsor.
“That hasn’t even been a topic of discussion in the short few days we’ve known what’s going on,” Johnson said. “In the initial feedback since the announcement has gone out, there is great optimism that we’ll land an amazing sponsor.”
At 42 years old and obviously with more years behind him than ahead of him, Johnson doesn’t view whether he runs just two more years as an issue for a potential sponsor.
“Marketing today has changed quite a bit, and as much as we all want to think corporations look at a 10-, 15-, 20-year run for a marketing plan, they really do look year to year,” Johnson said.
“Regardless, of how many years I drive, however you look at it, it’s much in the traditional thought the way marketers work. I don’t see it as a big issue at all.”
As an avid triathlete who came to stock-car racing from off-road racing roots, Johnson wouldn’t rule out having a sponsor that could be interested in his post-Cup life.
“I plan to keep racing — it might not be in NASCAR full-time,” Johnson said. “But I have many other series and types of cars that I want to race in and a lifestyle that I want to live, even doing fitness-related events, mountain bike races, triathlons and stuff like that.
“So I’m going to stay active and busy, and there could be a fit for the right lifestyle brand of sorts maybe or just a brand in general.”
He reiterated that post-Cup career won’t come in 2019, even though this would appear as a natural transition time as he sits 26th in the standings and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, is still unsigned for 2019 as well.
“I’m not done, man,” Johnson said. “You want me to go away?
“I guess maybe it’s the internal optimist that I am,” Johnson said. “I have more to do and I enjoy the process. Hendrick is home and retirement isn’t on my mind.
“I want to win. I want to win an eighth championship. … I’m the elder statesman at a company with three young guys. If I was to have this be the end, it would put Hendrick Motorsports in a very awkward position. There’s a lot of different ways why I can look at it and say it would be the absolute wrong time [to retire].”