DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Trevor Bayne won instant fame with his surprise Daytona 500 victory last year. He earned a small fortune, too.
He didn't get what he really wanted, though: a full-time ride.
Going into Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, the 21-year-old Bayne is as surprised as anyone that he's only running a partial schedule for the Wood Brothers in the Sprint Cup Series this year. His situation is even more unsettled in Nationwide, where Roush Fenway Racing is committed only to run the first three races of the season and is hoping a few good runs can attract some more money.
"I figure if we can maybe be leading the points by then, then it would be hard for them to stop racing," Bayne said. "But you would hope you could accumulate some kind of funding or some kind of sponsorship after the year that we had last year. It's just tough right now for us, and for every team out there."
Bayne and reigning Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are two of the most prominent up-and-coming drivers in NASCAR. In happier economic times, they might have Fortune 500 companies falling all over them.
The fact that neither driver has a full-time ride in Cup even caught the attention of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"We're seeing a lot of things showing that it's turning around, and hopefully it turns soon and the young guys that are kind of in the queue now will be able to ride it out and get a chance when the time comes," Johnson said. "But it's crazy to think that Ricky Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, you look through the list and they're the first two that come to mind. They've had great success — and white race cars."
Bayne's stunning Daytona win kicked off a 2011 season that NASCAR officials believe was engaging enough to give the sport a momentum boost for 2012. It ended with an epic title fight that ended with Tony Stewart edging out Carl Edwards in the final race of the season.
NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps believes those stories will drive fan interest this year, and Phelps sees other signs that NASCAR is rebounding from the hit it took when the economy started sputtering.
"If you go back a couple of years, obviously, the economic downturn certainly affects our sport more than any other because it's so dependent on sponsorship," Phelps said. "When marketing dollars dry up, sponsorship dollars are part of those (deals) drying up. But you've seen it start to cycle back, and it's really getting healthier and healthier."
Phelps says NASCAR has seen an overall increase in sponsorship every year since 2009 — especially in terms of sponsorship activation, the extra advertising and events that companies do to support their sponsorship programs.
Phelps says NASCAR has plenty of stories to draw in casual fans and keep hard-core fans riveted this year. Will Johnson rebound from what was an off season by his standards? Can Stewart win another title? How will Edwards rebound after coming so close to a title?
And don't forget Danicamania, as Danica Patrick now is racing in NASCAR on a full-time basis.
"There's so many great storylines that will help us, I think, sustain the momentum we've had in the sport," Phelps said.
All that said, Phelps acknowledges that seeing Bayne and other drivers potentially not getting to race full seasons because their teams can't find enough sponsors is cause for some concern.
"Are we perfectly pleased with how everything is? No," Phelps said. "There's still some teams with some sponsorship needs. ... But I think they're finding their way on that as well, and it's getting better."
Beyond Bayne, Roush Fenway also doesn't have full sponsorship for its No. 6 Cup car. That'd be a logical landing place in Cup for Stenhouse, who won the Nationwide championship for Roush Fenway last year. As it stands, Stenhouse will drive the No. 6 car at Daytona — and beyond that, who knows?
Roush Fenway also has sponsorship space to sell for Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup series champion.
Clint Bowyer left Richard Childress Racing in the offseason; RCR won't field the No. 33 car for a full season in 2012. Bowyer's new team, Michael Waltrip Racing, still is looking for additional sponsors for its No. 15 team.
Meanwhile, Red Bull Racing left NASCAR entirely.
Phelps said unsettled team sponsorship situations aren't unusual.
"The teams are so dependent on sponsor support," Phelps said. "That revenue stream is so important to the teams. But that's the way it's been in NASCAR for 65 years. That part's not different."
What is different today, Phelps said, is the model teams are using to bankroll their racing budgets.
In the past, a team would try to nail down one company to pay an eight-figure annual fee to become the team's primary sponsor. But there aren't enough companies willing to do that anymore — so instead, teams are trying to tie together enough smaller sponsorships to fund their teams.
Most teams are doing OK. A few aren't.
"There are realities," Phelps said. "It's expensive to run a team, so if you need to have six sponsors to make that thing work, you're going to have six sponsors. But because of that, you have downward pressure on the other teams, 'Hey, listen, I only have three sponsors, I have six races remaining, how am I going to fill the six races?' That's why it makes it difficult, and that's why I think there's so much focus on it right now."
But Phelps believes the teams will get it figured out. And he's confident that young stars like Bayne and Stenhouse have full-time rides in their foreseeable futures.
"Whenever you have two up and coming drivers, young drivers, who don't have full time support, yeah, it's concerning," Phelps said. "It'll get figured out. Trevor and Ricky are going to be in good shape. They are going to be drivers well into the future."