Sponsor, driver pairings need to fit

Awaiting word on Kyle Busch’s immediate motorsports fate captivated fans and media Thursday.

Whether Busch would be driving the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway or for the rest of the season was fodder for speculation throughout racing circles.

And just like the electifying — and self-admittedly polarizing — racer, the decision on his future was far from mundane.

Busch will be permitted to drive in NASCAR’s final two Sprint Cup races, sources told The Associated Press on Thursday, but he will not be representing his primary sponsor, M&M’s.

Busch, 26, came under fire after dumping title contender Ron Hornaday Jr. on Friday night in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR parked the 26-year-old for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races on Saturday and Sunday after the incident. Monday, the sanctioning body placed Busch under probation for the remainder of 2011 and fined the driver $50,000.

Besides the announcement of penalties, the release added, “if during the remaining NASCAR events in 2011 there is another action by the competitor that is deemed by NASCAR officials as detrimental to stock car racing or to NASCAR, or is disruptive to the orderly conduct of an event, the competitor will be suspended indefinitely from NASCAR.”

While the sanctioning body has spoken, little has been heard from Joe Gibbs Racing, including the No. 18 team’s weekly press release for Phoenix International Raceway.

Mars, the parent company of M&M’s released a statement Monday:

"The recent actions demonstrated by Kyle Busch are not consistent with the values of Mars, Inc. and we’re very disappointed. We do not condone this behavior and expect those who represent our company and brands to abide by the same values our company stands for. We have expressed our strong concerns directly to Joe Gibbs Racing."

JGR’s Nationwide Series sponsor Z-Line Designs crafted a similar message on Facebook:

"We were disappointed in Kyle Busch’s actions during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. As a sponsor, it is important that those who represent our company abide by certain standards of conduct. We have expressed our concerns directly to Kyle and to Joe Gibbs Racing. We support NASCAR’s decision and support Joe Gibbs Racing as they address this issue internally."

NASCAR would not be where it is today without sponsors, who can also speak with their checkbooks. No doubt that’s what has happened at JGR, a company which is now under duress with the possibility of losing both M&M’s and Z-Line Designs.

But throughout the course of the sport’s history, there have been pairings of drivers and benefactors that simply don’t make sense. One must wonder before a company invests seven or eight figures into a race team — and a driver — how much due diligence is exercised before such a commitment.

Did anyone really picture Kasey Kahne pounding Budweisers? Or Casey Mears banging shots of Jack Daniels? What about sexing up Mark Martin for GoDaddy? Or Joey Logano handling hardware for Home Depot? Probably no more than the fans envisioned Busch selling candy to children.

If Mars had spoken with Kellogg’s, Busch’s sponsor at Hendrick Motorsports, before jumping on board with the No. 18 car, it might have avoided this recent anguish. In the case of Busch, as with a lot of premier athletes, mess with the bull and you get the horns.

On the flip side of the equation, Mars’ return on investment from a media standpoint has been substantial. When Joyce Julius & Associates, which measures the value of corporate sponsorships, released its midseason NASCAR report, Busch topped the list with 12 hours, 31 minutes and seven seconds of exposure time for the first 18 races. Joyce Julius estimated Busch’s worth at “nearly $38.4 million of in-broadcast exposure value for his backing brands,” which included 142 verbal mentions. Busch also had 23 on-air interviews totaling just under 30 minutes and 2,722 personal mentions.

By comparison, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ranked second on the list, had seven hours, 41 minutes and 32 seconds of sponsor exposure time with 26 verbal mentions worth an estimated $26.5 million, according to Joyce Julius research. Earnhardt scored 12 interviews amounting to just under 16-1/2 minutes and 1,412 personal mentions. Carl Edwards, NASCAR’s current points leader, topped the interview totals with 29.

In addition, Busch generally ranks among the top five drivers in souvenir sales.

Despite Busch’s petulant past, he delivers both on the track and off. He has amassed 104 wins throughout NASCAR’s top three series in the past eight seasons. While the Gibbs organization has been relatively quiet, Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, stood up for his driver Sunday. Although Rogers acknowledged there’s “disappointment,” the crew chief still supported his driver.

“Kyle Busch is our driver, that’s who we signed up to work for,” Rogers said. “It’s hard when one of your team members isn’t participating, but there’s no anger, there’s no mad.

“Kyle is a teammate and we think the world of him and we support him. We’re in this together. We had a team meeting before the race — we’re in this together through thick and thin. We have each other’s back, and that’s just what it’s going to be.”

Joe Gibbs has had his share of high-strung athletes throughout his tenure with the Washington Redskins and in NASCAR. Certainly, during his stint with Tony Stewart, Gibbs gave the two-time champion plenty of leeway that would not have been offered at other organizations. Gibbs knew he had a winner in Stewart — and has the same potential with Busch.

If Gibbs elects to stick by Busch, the greatest challenge will not be whether the driver can deliver results but finding a sponsor that marries up to the driver.

If Gibbs can find a sponsor that puts as much emphasis on winning as the organization has, it could be a long, successful relationship.