News & Media

Caraviello: Despite successes, Roush not immune to sponsor woes

November 12, 2011, David Caraviello,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Team a victim of bad timing as sponsors reevaluate their position in market

At Roush Fenway Racing, these are heady days. The organization arrived at Phoenix International Raceway with drivers leading both of NASCAR's top circuits, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pacing the Nationwide Series and Carl Edwards holding a narrow edge in the Sprint Cup tour. Should a few things break right here on the edge of the Estrella Mountains, Jack Roush's outfit will go to swampy South Florida next weekend with a chance to do something no team has ever done -- sweep NASCAR's two biggest championships in the same year.

And yet, these are frustrating days at Roush Fenway as well. The organization's success on the race track hasn't necessarily translated into success in the sponsorship market, leaving the team with a stunning amount of inventory still to sell for 2012. Both UPS and Crown Royal are stepping aside as primary car sponsors after this season, leaving David Ragan and Matt Kenseth -- the former a first-time race winner, the latter a past champion and Chase contender -- without primaries for next year. Over on the Nationwide side, Stenhouse and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne have driven blank race cars for much of this season, a situation that has yet to change for 2012.

"It's up to our guys to sell as effectively as our competition, and we're trying to do that."



" I don't get angry. Probably more so than anything, I am thankful for all the years I had such great sponsors I got to work with."



"The good thing is, I fit in to the organization. I am just not sure what slot we are going to go in just yet."


It all leaves the usually rock-solid Roush program in a state of flux as this season rapidly approaches its end. The team that placed five cars in the Chase in 2005 may very well be down to three Cup entries next year, with one of those -- Kenseth's No. 17 -- run out of pocket. The futures of Stenhouse and Bayne remain uncertain. In a tight sponsorship market where recession-shy corporations are more reticent to part with money, not even an organization like Roush, which has a pair of Sprint Cup and Nationwide trophies on its mantle, is immune.

"We've got great programs, and NASCAR as an industry is very healthy," Roush, who co-owns the team along with John Henry, said Saturday. "It's up to our guys to sell as effectively as our competition, and we're trying to do that."

The Roush team seems to be a victim of bad timing, given that a number of its sponsorship deals have ended at a time when money is tight and corporations are reevaluating their position in the market. Crown Royal's departure from the No. 17 car is part of that company's efforts to consolidate its NASCAR interests behind the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. UPS switched from the primary backer of Ragan's car to an associate on Edwards' vehicle for next year. Such changes in strategy can sometime stand in contrast to performance on the race track -- for instance, Kenseth has won three times this year, and Ragan has enjoyed his best season in the series -- a reminder that corporate decisions are often made for internal reasons.

"I do believe that sponsors, they want to be associated with a winning program," said Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark. "But how you perform on the track -- it's not always necessarily dependent at that particular moment and time. They're not necessarily moving in parallel. These are business decisions companies are making for the most part, and they set their budgets six months in advance. That doesn't necessarily mean they're tracking what's going on on the track."

Ultimately, though, that's not much solace to an organization that may have to fund what has been a championship-caliber Sprint Cup program on its own. Roush, which mastered the practice of cobbling together multiple sponsors to cover a full season on a single vehicle, fielded five cars as recently as 2009, before a NASCAR rule change forced it to scale down to four. Roush hasn't fielded fewer than four full-time entries on NASCAR's premier series since 1997, when Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Ted Musgrave comprised the team's lineup. But the sponsor shortage may leave Roush with a three-car Sprint Cup stable -- Edwards, Kenseth, and Greg Biffle -- for 2012.

Newmark said the team still hopes to field its usual four-car slate. But the later it gets in the year, and the closer they get to the start of next season without any new sponsorship deals being struck, the more distant that possibility becomes.

"I think the later it gets in the season, the less likely it is," Newmark said. "It's not something that we've given up on. The focus, as it always is ... is on putting programs on the track that have the ability to win races every time they go out. That's really the focus, and as the season progresses and as we get toward the end of the year, it will be less likely that you'll see us with a fourth team. But at the same time, we do not rule anything out. There are no firm decisions that have been made on that front."

It all leaves Ragan -- who broke through this year with a victory in the summer Daytona race, and stayed in the Chase mix until the final week of the regular season -- as the potential odd man out. Newmark said the team is committed to running three cars at a minimum, and given Kenseth's status as a past champion and the No. 17 team's historical strength, Roush is going to field that program whether he has backing for it or not. "The decision is, we're going to run it," the car owner said.

This is all a new situation for Kenseth, who has won 21 times, long since established himself as a perennial Chase contender, and enjoyed solid sponsorship over the course of his career at NASCAR's top level. Rather than get angry, he said he focuses on all he can do -- running well on the race track.

"I think that from the performance side, we have been doing a pretty good job," said Kenseth, who won the pole for Sunday's race at Phoenix. "You can always do better. That is the main part that [crew chief] Jimmy [Fennig] and I and the team can control. The marketing side and the sales side, I don't have much to do with. I don't know what their challenges are or that type of thing. I don't get angry. Probably more so than anything, I am thankful for all the years I had such great sponsors I got to work with."

Also in limbo is Stenhouse, whose championship-caliber Nationwide season has put him in line for an eventual Sprint Cup ride. But once again, a lack of sponsorship has cast his 2012 plans into uncertainly. "We'll run him somewhere," Roush said, though as of now it's not clear where. Stenhouse understands Kenseth is the team's priority from a sponsorship standpoint, and seems content to have a place somewhere.

"The good thing is, I fit in to the organization. I am just not sure what slot we are going to go in just yet," he said. "I know guys are working hard on trying to find sponsorship, not only for myself but for Trevor and Matt as well. I think that right now Matt's is probably the most priority, since he is obviously going to be running Cup for sure full time. Hopefully they can get something locked down for him, and then worry about our situation. They haven't said if we are going to run full-time Nationwide and some Cup, or partial both or partial Nationwide. They haven't said. I will be in a car, just not sure exactly what."

The uncertainty could mean another campaign like the current one for Stenhouse and Bayne, who have run unsponsored Nationwide cars for much of the year. "Our goal is that we continue to cultivate the growth of Ricky and Trevor," Newmark said. "Both of those drivers are part of the future of Roush Fenway at the Cup level. We're beginning to try to put together some programs, and where it plays out, we'll sit down as an organization after the season and really talk about what we need to do to make sure we're continuing their growth in the right manner."

That growth has been evident, in Stenhouse's groundbreaking season and a 2011 campaign that has seen Bayne win for the first time on both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide levels. Then there's Edwards' title bid, Kenseth's three victories, and Ragan's win at Daytona. There has been plenty to celebrate at Roush Fenway this season, which has perhaps bigger celebrations to come. Now, if only that on-track success would translate into the corporate boardroom.

"We have a bunch of ongoing conversations with people we're optimistic about," Roush said. "We'll just have to see what happens."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.