NASCAR Could Use Another Dale Earnhardt Jr., And In A Hurry

Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid with Dale Earnhardt Jr. prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 6, 2016.


Because it hardly qualifies as big news any more when a corporate sponsor steps away from NASCAR, Nationwide’s recent announcement that it would stop backing the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Alex Bowman after this season created just a ripple or two.

“As Nationwide’s business needs evolve, we are adjusting our marketing resources to ensure that we are aligning to those new business priorities,” read Nationwide’s statement, which sounded like statements from others who have backed out of NASCAR’s garage.

There was, however, one interesting sentence farther down in Nationwide’s statement:  “In 2020, we will host partners at select NASCAR races and continue our relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

Ah. Junior. Before he retired after the 2017 season and was replaced by Bowman, Earnhardt drove the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy for three years with Nationwide as a primary sponsor. I asked Jarrett Dunbar, a spokesman for Nationwide, what “continue our relationship” meant.

In an email, Dunbar responded: “Our relationship and partnership of Dale will continue to evolve. We pivoted in 2018 from using Dale in NASCAR-themed TV to more digital and social content to help the 88 program and promote product level initiatives we had taking place on car (Pet, Small Business, Military Appreciation, etc.).

“We have leveraged in various ways outside of television creative, including paint scheme reveals, Dale’s podcast, our support of the military through the NASCAR Salutes program and our relationship with Nationwide Children’s Hospital (NCH). Dale continues to build his relationship with NCH as an extension of our partnership. This is all built upon the foundation of using appearances on and off-track at key meetings and events to energize and improve customer and producer relationships.”

So they have big plans for the guy, once again proving that Junior is still pure gold for sponsors. During Earnhardt’s last year as a driver, Nationwide developed cute and popular commercials centered on his upcoming retirement, including “Golden Years Dale,” which featured his wife, Amy.

This is great news for Earnhardt, who deserves to rake in as much as he can. It is not such great news for Hendrick Motorsports or for Bowman, who had a two-year contract with Nationwide that he signed in 2018. Hendrick and Bowman will need to replace a pretty big and loyal sponsor.

Bowman, 26, was said to be a worthy replacement after Earnhardt said in April 2017 that he was retiring, but Bowman has yet to win a Cup race in 132 attempts. Bowman did qualify for the 16-driver playoffs last year and is 10th in the driver standings after 15 races in 2019.

Bowman is clean-cut and quotable, though he said at a news conference the weekend before the Nationwide announcement that he is “pretty introverted. I kind of stick to myself.” Bowman was comparing himself not with Junior, who is pretty introverted, but with the late Tim Richmond, a flamboyant Hendrick driver whom Bowman will honor with a throwback paint scheme for the Southern 500.

Besides referring to the quote in the statement, Dunbar would not be more specific about exactly why Nationwide did not sign on again with Bowman, though it might not have anything to do with Bowman, a native of Tucson, Ariz., who does not have Earnhardt’s Southern charm — or family tree.

To their credit, Bowman and team owner Rick Hendrick thanked Nationwide in a team statement about the end of their business relationship. Hendrick added, just in case anyone thought otherwise, “Alex is having a breakout season and showing the world just how talented he is. He’s signed through next year and will be a big part of our future.”

You can still hear the NASCAR old-timers grumble that Junior was never the driver his late father was, and that Junior (who won 26 Cup races and no championships) essentially piggybacked off his legendary father (76 Cup victories, seven championships).

But Junior was the pitchman and ambassador that his father did not really want to be, and last week’s news was another sign of how NASCAR misses Junior as an active driver. Chase Elliott, another Hendrick driver, seems up to the challenge professionally and personally, but he is 23 and is just stepping from the shadow cast by his dad, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville Elliott.

Perhaps more phenoms like Hailie Deegan will emerge to lure some of the sponsors back. But NASCAR is lacking in personalities, which can sell the sport when it most needs a boost.

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