- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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When NASCAR dreamed up its innovative Nextel Cup playoff format last season, it seemed unlikely that both Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be outside the 10 drivers eligible to make a run for the title.
In the past decade, Gordon was the circuit's No. 1 driver for four seasons and never finished worse than ninth in the final standings. Earnhardt had 52 top-10 finishes from 2001 through 2003, and was clearly one of the most skilled, and definitely most popular, young drivers on the track.
But with two races to go before the final cut is made, NASCAR officials and sponsors might hold a playoff chase without two of the sport's biggest names. Little E is 14th despite two top-10 finishes in the last two weeks. Gordon sits in the No. 10 spot after a sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday.
But does NASCAR suffer when two of its most popular drivers have a difficult time making into Victory Lane? Not on the surface. It's hard to find anyone hurting -- from NASCAR to the tracks to even the drivers themselves.
The facilities are packed on race day. Television ratings for network and cable combined have averaged 9.3 million viewers per race -- up 8 percent from last year. In fact, the GFS Marketplace 400 two weeks ago was the second-highest-rated Nextel Cup Series event in TNT broadcast history.
"Given what we've seen from the fan interest and media coverage, there is more discussion and communication about the No. 8 and No. 24 [cars] than there ever would have been in the past," said Roger VanDerSnick, NASCAR's vice president of marketing. "People have been watching what Dale and Jeff are going to do to try to battle their way back in."
VanDerSnick points out that under the old system, Gordon wouldn't even have a chance to become this year's champion. But since the points reset for the top 10 for the final 10 races, it's possible that if he drives well, that can become a reality.
As for the business of Gordon and Earnhardt, who industry insiders say make up at least 60 percent of NASCAR's licensed sales, there's no sign that an on-the-track slump has affected off-the-track earnings.
"When you get to the point of four championships and more than 70 wins, you don't react on a race by race period, you react over a longer period of time," said John Bickford, vice president and general manager of Jeff Gordon Inc. "The longer you are in the sport and the more you accomplish, the longer you have to be in a slump before you begin to feel it from a business standpoint."
Bickford says that while Gordon's percentage of licensed products might be decreasing compared with other drivers' -- he has more than 100 licensees -- overall, NASCAR revenue is growing so the driver's earnings continue to grow each year. NASCAR licensing is expected to break last year's record of $2.1 billion, up from less than $500 million in 1992.
Gordon and Earnhardt are locked into their primary sponsorships with DuPont and Budweiser, respectively, for the near future. Earlier this year, DuPont -- which has been with Gordon since 1992 -- signed on to become his title sponsor through the 2010 season. Budweiser also announced a multiyear extension with Earnhardt.
The beer brand has featured Earnhardt in television and print advertising and has used him frequently on in-store displays.
"When they send out to distributors Dale Earnhardt cutouts, they commit to that way in advance," said Brett Yormark, who was formerly NASCAR's vice president of marketing. "I don't know when they are going to feel the effects."
So far, officials with Budweiser -- which has sponsored Earnhardt for the past six seasons -- haven't been vocal about any disappointment in their driver.
"Our Budweiser sponsorship of Dale Jr. is easily recognizable and popular among our core adult beer drinkers -- race fans and non-race fans alike -- because of his success and confidence as a driver and his rugged contemporary image," said Tony Ponturo, the company's vice president of global media and sports marketing. "He remains popular with our wholesalers and brewery workers."
DuPont officials declined to comment on Gordon's season, but Bickford said the driver's "losing a couple races isn't going to make a ripple on a 204-year-old company."
He also said there's no lack of interest from companies wanting to be associated with Gordon. The car will have a new associate sponsor, which will be announced in the coming months, and he said that current companies that have deals with Gordon -- including Pepsi, Elizabeth Arden and TAG Heuer -- are happy with their relationships.
"You can't take championships and wins away, so a 32nd place at Michigan isn't going to do much to dilute the Jeff Gordon brand that has become so synonymous with success, honesty, integrity and authenticity," Bickford said.
So what will happen to interest in the sport if Gordon and Earnhardt are eliminated from Nextel Cup contention?
Perhaps the strength of NASCAR is that not much is expected to be affected. That there are enough fans to root for Tony Stewart or for the ultimate farewell -- a championship -- for outgoing drivers Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
And who knows? Earnhardt and Gordon just might get a chance to compete for the title anyhow.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.email@example.com.
Sure, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are fighting to get into the Chase. But their presence isn't required for NASCAR to keep thriving.