- John Schwarb
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NASCAR announced Thursday that Camping World would take over sponsorship of its Truck Series in 2009 in a seven-year deal, bringing a measure of stability to its No. 3 racing series.
"We couldn't be more happy for a variety of reasons," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said on a conference call. "The folks at Camping World have really made a strong connection in recent years to the sport by various sponsorships and partnerships in and out of events, in and around teams, throughout. They have a really good feel for NASCAR."
Financial terms were not disclosed.
Camping World replaces Craftsman, which was the Truck Series' first and only sponsor since it began in 1995. Camping World's chairman and CEO Marcus Lemonis said the company will activate its sponsorship not only on the racing surface with truck windshield decaling but around racetracks themselves, providing an interactive marketplace for their recreational vehicles and outdoor camping accessories.
"What we're most concerned about is creating an environment outside the four corners of the track, in the campgrounds and in the parking lots of those environments," Lemonis said. "Our activation is about experiencing our product, and our activation is about allowing people to take our product to the racetrack to make it more convenient."
Camping World has been a prominent brand in recent years in NASCAR and especially the Truck Series, sponsoring the Kevin Harvick Inc. No. 33 Chevrolet that Ron Hornaday Jr. drove to a championship last season.
Hornaday is currently second in points and vying to become the first back-to-back series champion.
The company will continue as primary sponsor of the No. 33 through the 2009 season, but will end its sponsorship of a KHI Nationwide Series car. It will also continue its title sponsorship of the lower-level NASCAR development series Camping World Series East and Camping World Series West through 2009.
Its dual role as a title sponsor and sponsor of a vehicle in the same series wouldn't be unique in NASCAR history, Jimmy Spencer drove a Winston-sponsored car in 1998-99 in the then-Winston Cup Series.
The Truck Series' title sponsorship has been on the market for about a year, when Craftsman officials in late 2007 said the tool company would not return as sponsor after the 2008 season.
NASCAR had talks with a number of other companies for the entitlement, most notably Lowe's Kobalt Tools during the summer, but Lemonis' Camping World emerged as a front-runner in recent months and Lemonis said it took two to three months to "punch it over the goal line."
"I've been looking at it for about nine months. I spent a lot of time talking to people like [champion Sprint Cup owner] Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick about it, getting their advice," Lemonis said. "At the end of the day, all of our partners, including track presidents and people that we sponsor with, all believe that it was a great fit for us.
"The Craftsman Truck Series has been clearly, by far, the best return for the investment."
Truck Series teams hope that with a new title sponsor secured, sponsor investment will follow. While television ratings for Truck Series broadcasts on SPEED are up 19 percent over last year, the series has struggled to have full fields in the wake of a slow economy that has battered teams.
Eleven of 21 events have not had a full 36-truck field, and another short field is expected this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Craftsman Truck Series had 11 short fields in four years from 2004 to 2007.
Sprint Cup has had full fields of 43 cars for each of its races this season, and the Nationwide Series has had a full field in every race but one.
"As a team owner, while we're trying to put together our package for next year, if we've got anything new and exciting to talk about, that's gonna help us a little bit over everyone saying, 'Are you sure the series is even going to be around if they don't have a sponsor?' " said Bobby Dotter, owner of SS-Green Light Racing, who earlier in the week said his two-truck team would likely be consolidating to one for 2009 due to economic conditions.
"You never thought that would be a problem, but yet other people did, so I'm glad it's finally getting announced," Dotter added. "To have a good series sponsor and especially a multi-year deal, that helps everything."
The Truck Series has served as the first point of entry for some American automotive companies' cutbacks in NASCAR. In September, Dodge said it would cut financial support for teams at the end of this year, and last weekend it was announced that Ford would follow suit.
Truck teams have relied more on manufacturer dollars, on a percentage basis, than Nationwide and Sprint Cup teams. With less money or none at all from manufacturers, sponsors must fill in the gap.
"We've got to be able to produce numbers somehow with our advertising, numbers so we can get this thing solidified without asking the manufacturers to do it all," said driver Dennis Setzer, an 18-time winner but one of many veterans without a ride for next season.
A title sponsor, in theory, is a key first step.
"The good news for us is we've got a proven model here where the series is, from a cost standpoint, already pretty reasonable in the grand scheme of a national division, has a lot of value for a lot of sponsors, and is currently producing just great, exciting racing," France said. "So we've got a lot to build on and a great foundation."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information