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CUP: Kahne's Future With Budweiser In Question

Article by Erik Spanberg, scenedaily.com

This Bud’s for you, but probably not for Kasey Kahne. Or is it?

As soon as Kahne signed this month with Hendrick Motorsports, conventional wisdom about the circuit's hottest (former) free agent had him parting ways with current primary sponsor Budweiser at the end of 2010. Kahne's contract with Hendrick Motorsports begins with the 2012 season, leaving questions about where he will drive next year (his current deal with Richard Petty Motorsports expires at the end of this season) and what company will serve as his lead sponsor by the time he joins Hendrick.

The SportsBusiness Journal, among others, has noted a lack of room for Budweiser at Hendrick, where Pepsi carried an exclusive sponsor deal in the beverage category. Pepsi-owned brands back all three of Kahne’s future teammates: Jeff Gordon (Pepsi-Cola), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Amp Energy) and Jimmie Johnson (Gatorade).

Earnhardt Jr. left Bud two years ago when he joined Hendrick’s race team, so the thinking goes that if Hendrick and Bud couldn’t make that arrangement work, it’s unlikely Kahne and Hendrick could, either. But team owner Rick Hendrick, talking to reporters Sunday at Talladega, wouldn't rule out Budweiser although he did say that some of his sponsor contracts have rights of first refusal.

Bud sponsored a Hendrick-owned car during the mid-1990s and left that arrangement to sponsor Earnhardt Jr., then part of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

With or without the beer giant, industry experts expect Kahne to generate intense sponsor interest once he gets to Hendrick Motorsports.

“What’s great about Kasey is that he’s already got the attention of mainstream media outlets,” says Mike Mooney, vice president of Millsport Motorsports, a consultant to companies involved in NASCAR. “He’s been in People magazine and on ‘Live with Regis and Kelly.’ He doesn’t have to break through” beyond racing.

One of his biggest selling points: a track record of attracting female fans. Former sponsor Allstate made Kahne a prominent part of the insurance company’s national advertising for several years, usually to comedic effect with women swooning over him.

An Allstate ad promoting the company’s safe-driving bonus checks for customers featured three 30-something women having lunch and fantasizing how they would spend their rewards. In a daydream sequence, Kahne, sporting a heart-patterned firesuit, appears with crew members in a choreographed dance to the strains of “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

Mooney describes Kahne’s ability to resonate with female fans as a key selling point.

“His looks and appeal to that household CFO is something brands” are looking for, he says.

Hendrick points to Kahne’s résumé as statement enough for his team and sponsors to take notice. At 30, Kahne’s NASCAR portfolio includes 11 wins and 16 poles.

“He’s one of the stars of our sport, but he’s got a lot of years left ahead of him,” Hendrick says. “We looked at this as a golden opportunity for our organization to pick up such a great talent. It’s an investment in our future.”

Four years ago, he won six Sprint Cup races in a single season, but his performance has tapered off since then, in part because of the upheaval at Richard Petty Motorsports.

Richard Petty Motorsports, in its current incarnation, emanated from the former Evernham Motorsports, which had morphed into Gillett Evernham Motorsports as the Gillett family took majority interest. Kahne reached the 10-race Chase For The Sprint Cup last season.

Beyond the appeal of Kahne, pairing him with Hendrick — NASCAR’s dominant organization — makes him even more marketable.

“He just has more horsepower now,” Mooney says.

At the same time, working out a deal for 2011 will be interesting. Hendrick says he will help Kahne land a ride for next year, but declines to offer details. Since he can’t field a fifth Sprint Cup team (Mark Martin drives the ride Kahne will inherit in 2012), it’s hard to tell what Hendrick has in mind.

So far, he’s demurred on whether he would push to elevate Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide team into a Sprint Cup entry. Stewart-Haas Racing buys equipment from Hendrick and could be a candidate, but owner/driver Tony Stewart told reporters soon after the Kahne announcement that no one had discussed putting him there in 2011.

Wherever Kahne lands next season, a sponsor contract could require intricate negotiations. If the sponsor wanted to back Kahne in 2011 and also when he moves to Hendrick, would the team he drives for next year agree to that? Or, if Kahne has a one-off sponsor for next year, would companies be willing to make the sponsorship and promotional investment for a short-lived venture?

And, should Bud keep Kahne, it "would be the perfect storm," says Mooney, the Millsport Motorsports executive. "Bud would be coming back to the Hendrick stable with a driver they're already working with."

Amid the questions, one thing seems certain: Hendrick and Kahne will enjoy a healthy corporate payday in 2012.

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