The inside story of why Shell stayed with Penske – and the NASCAR superstar they nearly chose instead

4 Comments

During its first three seasons with Team Penske, Shell-Pennzoil endured two driver swaps, a failed drug test and a bevy of negative headlines surrounding its No. 22 car.

And to think, the oil and gas giant nearly went in a completely different direction with its Sprint Cup sponsorship – the No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon.

Instead, Shell went with Roger Penske’s NASCAR organization five years ago, and the decision finally has paid off the last two seasons with the breakthrough of 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano in the No. 22 Ford.

In a story for NBC’s SportsWorld site, Nate Ryan examines the behind-the-scenes machinations that led ShellPennzoil to Penske (including a chance meeting at Homestead-Miami Speedway) and helped keep the company there despite all the turbulence from 2011-12.

Ryan writes:

       Shell’s first Sprint Cup driver with Team Penske was Kurt Busch, whose incessant invective on the team radio and multiple meltdowns with the news media caused an unceremonious departure in December 2011. Replacement A.J. Allmendinger didn’t reach the midpoint of the next season before being booted for a positive drug test for amphetamines.

“It was a conversation we had with Joey that, ‘Look you’re driver No. 3, and I’ve learned how to rebrand marketing overnight,’ ” Heidi Massey-Bong, a senior business advisor at Shell, told NBC Sports. “So don’t be that guy. I don’t want to have to do it again, but I’m not going to be afraid to pull the trigger, either, and I’m done with the craziness.”

Logano wasn’t exactly a safe play, either. Penske was asking Shell to take a chance on a former can’t-miss prospect who won only twice during his first four disappointing seasons in Cup.

Over the course of the hourlong meeting in August 2012, a contrite Logano detailed his missteps – by now a familiar refrain for a company twice burned by its drivers’ poor decision-making.

“It was a gamble for them to go with me after everything that was going on,” Logano recently said. “But they’ve been so supportive of everything we’ve done since. It’s been a great sponsor, and it’s been kind of interesting.”

The intrigue has run deep for Shell, which has weathered a fairly dizzying turn of events since shortly before announcing its move to Penske’s organization five years ago last week.

The runner-up in its sweepstakes for choosing a new team was the No. 24 Chevrolet of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, meaning Shell could have been celebrating the farewell tour of a future Hall of Famer this season if not for a chance meeting between old friends in a hallway at Homestead-Miami Speedway that led to Penske.

But there hardly is remorse given how things have worked out with Logano, who turns 25 next month.

Last season marked his long-anticipated breakthrough in NASCAR’s premier series, notching six victories and taking the No. 22 Ford to the first championship round of the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup. He opened the 2015 season with a Daytona 500 victory, bringing smiles to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway among team and sponsor executives who sat stone-faced across from each other in many boardrooms three years ago. Entering Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway (where Logano won the most recent race last October), he is ranked fourth in the points standings with eight top-10s in 10 races.

“You’re looking at this young kid, and he’s got his whole career ahead of him,” said Massey-Bong, who has overseen the NASCAR sponsorship since Shell entered Cup in 2007 with Richard Childress Racing. “We can be with him for another 20 years. We’ve got hopefully multiple more Daytona 500-type wins with him and hopefully a championship. We feel like we really hit the home run with him in somebody we can build our brand around long term.”

But Logano arrived only after the team faced “the unspoken third strike,” as Team Penske President Tim Cindric put it, of selecting a new driver.

During the tumultuous 18 months that began the Penske sponsorship, it would have been natural for Shell to question the value of an annual commitment well into eight figures (Sprint Cup teams generally ask at least $18 million per season for a top-line sponsorship, and companies spend as much marketing it).

Zak Brown, founder and CEO of the Just Marketing International agency that handles sponsorships in NASCAR, IndyCar and F1, said morality clauses would have allowed Shell to vacate its Penske contract during the Busch and Allmendinger ordeals, which both generated weeks of negative headlines.

“Sponsors always weigh their options, and I’d imagine there were plenty of conversations about, ‘What do we do here?’ ” Brown told NBC Sports. “Very few teams would have been able to retain Shell.”

So what made it work despite all the headaches?

Good business (the sponsorship essentially pays for itself).

And a good businessman behind it.

For more, check out the rest of Ryan’s story here.