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Jimmie Johnson losing Lowe’s is another warning for NASCAR

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Lowe’s is the latest Fortune 500 company to announce it will no longer sponsor a NASCAR team.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Ford EcoBoost 400 - Practice
Jimmie Johnson climbs into his car during practice for the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17, 2017.
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

The news cannot be deemed shocking. In fact, Lowe’s announcing it would cease sponsoring Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports past this season was a move many within the NASCAR industry foresaw coming for some time.

But while anticipated, it doesn’t blunt the significance any. Instead, it offers another dire reminder about the state of NASCAR in 2018 amidst continually slumping television ratings, flat attendance, and an economic climate where teams are saddled with exorbitant costs but have fewer dollars coming in.

If there was a Fortune 500 company seemingly committed to NASCAR as it battles against regression in the sports landscape, Lowe’s was the ideal partner. It has been Johnson’s sponsor for the entirety of his Cup Series career. Since putting its name and colors on the No. 48 Chevrolet in 2001, Lowe’s and Johnson have evolved into one of the most successful and synonymous sponsor-driver pairings in NASCAR history, deserving of a spot in the same realm as Richard Petty and STP, Dale Earnhardt and GM Goodwrench, and Jeff Gordon and DuPont.

The North Carolina-based company once had such a strong ties to NASCAR it previously held the naming rights to Charlotte Motor Speedway (1999-2010). And when Johnson dominated on the track in his sponsor’s backyard winning five of six races during one stretch, CMS appropriately was dubbed “The House that Jimmie Built.”

But Lowe’s long association with Johnson and 20-plus years involvement overall with NASCAR is now in its waning months. Earnings falling well short of expectations, a stock price that has dropped double digits, and turnover in the executive ranks indicated change was afoot, with the clearest sign coming in 2015 when the company signed only a two-year contract extension to continue as Johnson’s primary sponsor despite Johnson concurrently agreeing to an extension with Hendrick through the 2020 season.

What gives cause for concern is Lowe’s echoing several other high-profile companies and determining NASCAR is no longer a suitable outlet to spend millions upon millions as a marketing vessel. Within the past decade Target, Dollar General, Home Depot, Best Buy, UPS, Farmers Insurance, Subway, U.S. Army, National Guard, Sprint, Great Clips, Aaron’s, and Miller are all major brands that have completely withdrawn its support of NASCAR or significantly reduced its presence.

And though NASCAR touts the number of large corporations involved in the sport in some capacity, the reality is these companies are not spending anywhere close to what was being invested during the sport’s zenith. Teams now require multiple sponsorship packages to subsidize what one company would spend previously with piecemeal deals commonplace. Trading one big money sponsorship for two smaller deals may allow NASCAR to claim that Fortune 500 companies see the sport as vibrant, though closer inspection casts a far gloomier picture.

Lowe’s was one of the few remaining exceptions where it sponsored one driver, one team for the entire 36-race Cup Series schedule. FedEx is now the lone company to carry that distinction.

Sponsorship drying up is frequently explained away by pointing toward a team’s inability to perform well enough to provide a company enough bang for its buck. Such an excuse doesn’t apply to Johnson, who delivered Lowe’s 83 wins and a record-tying seven championships. Nor Hendrick, NASCAR’s most successful organization with 12 premier division titles to its name.

Johnson was the consummate spokesman, the kind of ambassador any company would want pitching its products. The same applies to Kyle Larson, who before this season had Target as his anchor sponsor. But gradually Target began divesting itself, going from 29 races as primary in 2015 to just over 20 in 2017 to now gone entirely.

Like Johnson, Larson is a marketable driver whose accomplishments on the track gives sponsors no shortage of publicity. And at age 25 his youthfulness is a further selling point. But while Chip Ganassi Racing was able to fill most of the inventory opened by Target’s departure, sponsorship gaps remain on Larson’s car for this season.

Target and Lowe’s ranked first and second in brand exposure last season, according to Nielsen. Still wasn’t enough to compel either to continue forward. That speaks volumes. So too does Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each having races in recent years where they lacked a primary sponsor.

Depending on whether Hendrick finds a replacement for Lowe’s — and to what level — Johnson may soon join this list. A worrisome possibility underscoring NASCAR’s current tenuous standing with Corporate America.