Jeff Gordon on how NASCAR sponsorships changed during his career

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In a parallel universe (as explored in this SportsWorld story about Shell’s Team Penske sponsorship), Jeff Gordon might be sporting a uniform look during his final full-time NASCAR season.

Instead the four-time series champion’s No. 24 Chevrolet is emblematic of the trend toward rotating primary sponsorships in Sprint Cup. Through the first 10 races this season, Gordon’s car has featured Axalta, Panasonic, Drive to End Hunger and 3M (which joined the Hendrick Motorsports team this year). Later this season, longtime sponsor Pepsi will be featured.

It’s a far cry in many ways from the first 18 seasons of Gordon’s career, which was synonymous with the DuPont Automotive Finishes brand. The eye-catching, multicolored hues of those paint schemes inspired the nickname for the vaunted No. 24 pit crew whose swift work helped win three titles: “The Rainbow Warriors.”

Gordon said there are advantages to having a single primary sponsor for a full season.

“When it comes to brand recognition, the fans want to see the same color paint scheme and sponsor every weekend,” he said. “We’d like that as well. We’re very fortunate to have the multiple partners we have, and it’s fantastic, and we’ve got great partners, and we feel very fortunate that we have them to fill up those races.

“But if we could take one or two of them and have them on the car the whole year? Absolutely.”

That scenario is becoming increasingly rare in Sprint Cup, though. While the price point for a championship-caliber sponsorship has remained static over the past decade (roughly $20 million per car annually), the number of companies available to stroke a check that large has declined.

That was partially a byproduct of the Great Recession, which wiped out many companies’ marketing budgets and put heavy scrutiny on big-ticket expenditures such as a NASCAR sponsorship.

“Everybody cut back and did a reset,” Gordon said. “We had to find ways to eliminate some costs. They said, ‘This is what we have to spend.’ We had to find a way to manage that and get through it, and we did.”

Yet it’s also a result of companies growing more efficient with their branding strategies (through new avenues such as social media) and landing on ways to generate the same return with fewer races.

“Companies are doing a really good job of getting that paint scheme on the car and saying, ‘OK we need to be on the car for this many races, but we don’t have to be on the car every race and still be able to use the marketing,’ ” Gordon said. “So we recognize that. They recognize that. We’re just trying to constantly give them everything we possibly can from the social media side — at track, away from track, videos, the drivers’ time, whether it’s customer events or media pops — and hope they recognize the value.”

That shift has increased the demands on Gordon’s time, too. Every primary sponsor is guaranteed production days (which typically mean six to eight hours of photo or video shoots), and those have become more coveted than track or store appearances (which might take two to three hours).

Gordon had DuPont as virtually his only primary sponsor from 1993-2010. During his early seasons, the company “probably had 30 appearances and used 15 of them. Then after we won the championship, they started using more of them. Then we started trying to understand their use of time, my time and managing it that way. Somewhere along the way, the production days became almost more important than appearances.”

Gordon said the multiple-sponsor model also has had an impact on the process of negotiating sponsorships during his career.

“What we’ve seen is companies basically have come to us and said, ‘Here’s our budget, what are we getting for that?’ Then we as a business have to try to figure out what our expenses are,” he said. “What it’s costing us, mainly in salaries (for) driver, crew chief, pit crews, engineers. That’s where our biggest expense is where it’s hard to cut back on.

“What we basically do is come up with a per race cost. So if somebody comes to us and says, ‘Here’s our budget,’ then we basically put that into the number of races and tell them here’s how many races you can get. Instead of saying, ‘OK, yeah, we’ll give you the whole season for that.’ We can’t do business that way.”

Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s Hendrick teammate, is among the only drivers left with a full-season sponsor as Lowe’s has covered the entire year since the six-time series champion entered Cup in 2002.

Other remaining sponsors that are committed for full or nearly full seasons in 2015:

–Aaron’s (Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota).

–Target (Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Kyle Larson; many of the store’s brands are featured).

–Dollar General (30 of 36 races with Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota).

–Mars (No. 18 Toyota normally driven by Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing).

–Menards (No. 27 Chevrolet of Paul Menard at Richard Childress Racing).

–FedEx (JGR’s No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin).

–AdvoCare (No. 6 Ford of Trevor Bayne at Roush Fenway Racing).

–Shell-Pennzoil (32 of 36 races on Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford at Team Penske).

Read more here about how the Shell sponsorship nearly landed with Gordon, how the company selected Team Penske and why it stuck through some turbulent times.