Rick Hendrick, a car dealer at the end of the day, pulled off another sales job of Jimmie Johnson to preserve the branding of the seven-time NASCAR champion.
Ally Financial Inc. will sponsor Johnson for all 38 races in the next two NASCAR seasons — the remaining years on Johnson’s contract — as he chases a record eighth championship. The deal was announced Sunday before the playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, one of Johnson’s final races in his career-long relationship with Lowe’s.
Johnson has been with Lowe’s since 2001 when the company took Hendrick at his word that this nobody racer from the California desert was the real deal. The company held a contingency plan for promotional use of Jeff Gordon in case Hendrick sold it a lemon and the Johnson kid turned out to be a bust.
Johnson turned out to be a buyer’s dream.
He won 83 races all with Lowe’s on board. Johnson never became a revolving billboard, and in 18 years he has never had to represent a company just for the money. So when Lowe’s said it was leaving NASCAR at the end of the season, Hendrick had a huge deal to unload. Johnson is an iconic sports property with his seven titles, his impeccable reputation and easily identifiable commercial sponsors.
Selling Johnson off in pieces would have cheapened the brand. But finding a sponsor willing to commit to a 43-year-old for an entire season? Well, this was going to require one of Hendrick’s greatest pitches.
“This feels like Christmas,” Hendrick said more than once on NBC Sports Network. The team owner was flanked by Johnson and Ally CEO Jeffrey Brown to announce the deal an hour before Johnson raced at Martinsville. The deal was so big for all sides that Ally immediately activated and aired a commercial in the pre-race segment leading into its announcement with Johnson.
“It’s so important to have a sponsor that is going to be on all the cars for every race for two years. You know, Jimmie deserves that,” Hendrick said.
Johnson had a 60-race losing streak before he started at Martinsville, and crew chief Chad Knaus is being moved to a younger driver at the end of the season. Lowe’s is out, too, so the trio that tied Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in championships is breaking up. As months dragged on and Hendrick still didn’t have a deal announced for Johnson, there was concern that Johnson would be parceled off to the highest bidders.
Ally ensures that Johnson will have just one look in what is probably his final two years chasing sole ownership of the championship record.
“I’m not done yet. Hendrick isn’t done. Ally is ready to get in there and get to work and promote our sport to a level that hasn’t seen, and I’m the lucky guy who gets to drive the cars,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited about my future, Hendrick’s future, Ally and the next couple of years.”
Ally is not a new sponsor to Hendrick. The financial institution was rebranded from GMAC to Ally after the 2008 economic downtown, and GMAC sponsored Hendrick cars at various stages. GMAC sponsored the late Ricky Hendrick in the Xfinity Series and was on board the car when Brian Vickers won that series’ championship in 2003. Ally does business as an auto loans lender, and Hendrick sells automobiles at his car dealerships, where the banker has a presence.
Still, Ally will be coming back to NASCAR as a new company that follows the mantra “Do it Right,” cited by Brown during the reveal.
“We live by the mantra … and there is no better duo,” Brown said of Hendrick and Johnson.
Ally is the 17th new partner or renewal this season for Hendrick, and the end of a long market search for Johnson. He’d only been for sale once before in his Cup career, after he happened to catch the attention of Gordon. It was Gordon who persuaded Hendrick to hire Johnson, and Gordon and Hendrick had to promise Lowe’s that Johnson would win races.
Johnson exploded onto the Cup scene and Lowe’s remained with the No. 48 team in what became one of the greatest dynasties in NASCAR history. Johnson, Knaus, Hendrick and Lowe’s won five Cup titles in a row from 2006-2010. Johnson in 2009 became the first race car driver to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. His brand has a unique value, which Hendrick protected by landing a full-time sponsor in Ally rather than a deal that consisted of multiple sponsors over the season.
His efforts next season will have a new look with both Ally and a new crew chief, as Hendrick has made personnel changes for 2019. Knaus will move to William Byron’s car and Johnson will be partnered with Kevin Meendering.
It will be an entirely different look for Johnson, who has had almost zero change in his 18-year Cup career.
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