DOVER, Del. - If Clint Bowyer wins today's Autism Speaks 400, he knows the first thing he'll say when he gets out of his car.
"I'll say, 'The Hartford Chevrolet was fast,' " Bowyer said, referring to the insurance company that is his primary sponsor for today's race. Bowyer would then proceed to thank the laundry list of other sponsors displayed on his uniform and car, reciting them without hesitation.
"That's just built into what we do," he said.
Sponsorship is a part of every sport, but nowhere is it more integral than in NASCAR. It costs millions of dollars to run one car for a full season, and a huge part of that budget comes from sponsors.
"Sponsors are what make this whole organization work," racing legend Richard Petty said. "You go back 40 years ago, and there wasn't anything sponsored."
Petty said it's not just the increased operating costs but the fact that paying fans are tougher to come by because of competition from so many other sports and entertainment options.
"I mean, we've got skateboarding and stuff," Petty said. "We used to just have marble shooting that we had to compete with."
While getting a logo on the front of the car is the most important thing, companies expect drivers to plug their products every chance they get. Whether they're in victory lane or explaining a last-place finish, drivers have to rattle off their sponsors.
Ask Joey Logano what he had for breakfast, and he'd likely find a way to plug The Home Depot.
"You just force it into your interview. It's not rocket science, really," Logano said. "It's kind of a
no-brainer. It's the first thing that comes to your mind."
Bowyer has an even easier time talking about breakfast. His usual primary sponsor is Cheerios. But he's had to get used to that after switching from Jack Daniel's this year.
"Obviously, going from a whiskey to a cereal is a huge change," Bowyer said.
Does it get tough remembering whom to plug, especially considering Bowyer is also sponsored by Holiday Inn in the Nationwide Series? He says he's never had a problem.
"You know where you're at, you know which car you're in and you know who your sponsors are," Bowyer said. "You deal with your sponsors pretty much on a day-to-day basis.
"You don't slip up. It's so routine that it just comes naturally."
If he did slip up, Bowyer said, he'd just correct himself and move on.
"But we all know the importance of sponsors and what they do for us, so we just don't forget," he said.
It's especially important this year with the economy in its current condition. Some teams have had to shut down because of lack of sponsorship.
"Just to have one, I think you are going to remember it," Logano said. "As tough as things are right now, you're going to remember to mention your sponsors in interviews and stuff like that."
It helps drivers to have sponsors with whom they can identify, and ones that they actually would endorse if they weren't being paid. That way, they don't need to sit in front of a mirror practicing their sponsor list like a high school presentation.
Martin Truex Jr. is an avid fisherman. Growing up in Stafford Township, N.J., he often fished in Barnegat Bay. So it makes sense that his main sponsors are Bass Pro Shops and Tracker Boats.
"When you're promoting someone's product, you want to be sincere about it," Truex said. "At least I have been. That's why Bass Pro is such a great fit for me. It's a no-brainer, because I'm a customer there."
Logano agrees. While he insists he shops at The Home Depot, his Nationwide sponsor GameStop seems more appropriate for the 19-year-old.
"It's all stuff I go to and use, so for me it's not a big deal," Logano said.
It works the other way, too. Petty points out that sponsors often provide additional exposure through advertising. And some fans choose their favorite drivers based on sponsors.
"The Jack Daniel's sponsorship was kind of what put me on the map," Bowyer said.
One group of fans at last May's Dover race said they root for Truex because they "love bass fishing."
So wherever Bowyer and Truex finish today, expect them to talk about insurance and fishing as soon as they get out of their cars.
"Sponsors are the biggest part of what we do, so that's just the first thing we think," Bowyer said.
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