Commentary

A win-win for NAPA and NASCAR

Updated: January 7, 2014, 2:51 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

Kelley Earnhardt Miller knows the predatory nature of the sponsor business. So the vice president of JR Motorsports knew she would be among many opportunists attempting to exploit for her team the aftermath of NAPA's decision to leave NASCAR following Michael Waltrip Racing's race-manipulation scandal last September at Richmond International Raceway.

[+] EnlargeChase Elliott
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesChase Elliott, son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, will pilot the No. 9 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.

There were probably 30 among them, she said. Thirty if her counterparts were doing their jobs.

But JRM had some advantages.

Earnhardt Miller and her brother and team co-owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had history with the auto parts retailer from their time together -- including two Waltrip Daytona 500 wins -- at now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc. They had the lure of a promising young driver, also with a reverberant and respected last name, in Chase Elliott, whom the team hoped to field for a full-time Nationwide Series program this season. That Elliott is technically signed to a developmental deal with mighty Hendrick Motorsports could not have hurt.

And Elliott is the son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott, who was voted NASCAR's most popular driver 16 times until being supplanted by Earnhardt Jr. And the Elliotts reside in Georgia, near NAPA's Atlanta headquarters.

Still, NAPA needed a little more. In the wake of the Richmond incident, it needed an assurance, even in a sport borne of outlaws and bred on pushing boundaries, of good citizenship. At least better. As in, don't try to rig the playoffs.

"They were going through a lot of different scenarios themselves as to where they stood within the sport," Earnhardt Miller said on Monday after JRM announced a multiyear deal with NAPA to field a full-time entry with Elliott in the Nationwide Series this season. "So this situation really kind of came together for us in the last 30 days full force, and to really get serious about it, we had to stand up to a lot of different things for NAPA as they have very high standards.

"We had to prove to them that we are going to go out and do what we said we could do and be a great representative for them."

[+] EnlargeMartin Truex Jr.
Jennifer Stewart/Getty ImagesNAPA was in the first year of a three-year extension with Michael Waltrip Racing when the sponsor ended its multimillion-dollar agreement on the heels of MWR's attempt to manipulate the outcome of the Richmond race last September.

Earnhardt Jr. concurred, saying in the team release: "I recognize -- and I think Chase does, too -- the responsibility that comes with representing a company so significant in the lives of NASCAR fans. We welcome the opportunity and appreciate what NAPA means to this sport."

Ultimately, JRM offers NAPA a place to cleanse itself of the stain of the MWR scandal while remaining in a series it has used as a ubiquitous marketing platform for 19 years. And in doing so in NASCAR's second-tier developmental series, it offered the opportunity at a marked discount over 33 races than its 36-points event Sprint Cup sponsorship, most recently last season with Martin Truex Jr. That was simply a bonus.

"NAPA has invested so much into the sport over the years that it makes sense to continue to be part of it," said Ramsey Poston, president of Tuckahoe Strategies, a strategic communications firm specializing in public relations.

NAPA officials refused interview requests on what they felt was a day of potential mixed reaction, but company president Dan Askey expressed in the release his belief that Elliott "will represent NAPA well both on and off the track."

NAPA's departure from the sport -- one year into a three-year renewal -- had cost NASCAR another rare full-time sponsor and was devastating to MWR, more punitive by far than the stoutest penalty in series history, $300,000 and 50-point penalties to Truex, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers.

Truex went from an apparent unwitting beneficiary of a scheme to successfully land him a Chase for the Championship spot to unemployed -- with roughly a third of the company's employees -- as his program was shuttered without sponsorship, before he landed with the one-car Furniture Row Racing this season. MWR's other sponsors remained after initially following NAPA's lead of harshly chastising MWR via social media and press release.

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NAPA officials, according to sources, did not come bounding back to a sport where its image had been sullied. Its path to JRM was likely made a bit more precarious when Elliott's apparent second victory in the prestigious Snowball Derby late-model race in December was disallowed after his car was found to be carrying illegal tungsten ballast. That infraction wasn't Richmond-caliber, but it existed. With nearly two decades of time, energy and cash already invested in NASCAR, NAPA officials surely understand that their representatives will eventually run afoul of rules again. Doing so is a matter of millimeters at times, and MWR set a high bar for chicanery.

But rejoining the series with a wildly popular owner and a wildly promising 18-year-old driver campaigning a car bearing a No. 9 so associated with his father should offer some assurances and cover. The Earnhardts and the Elliotts speak of legacy and respect and have seen how they can be earned, squandered and nurtured.

Just like precious sponsor dollars. Earnhardt Miller went after both.

"Our role was to try to find sponsorship, and we knew at that point that we had the opportunity to put Chase in a car if we could come up with the right sponsorship scenario in working with Hendrick Motorsports," Earnhardt Miller said. "Of course we sent them a note, a proposal. ... It was an easy note to send from the standpoint of Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports."

And considering all the factors, an easy one for NAPA.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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