How’s this for a reality check? Lowe’s and Jimmie Johnson are severing their long-standing partnership after this racing season. Astonishing, this wallop to Hendrick Motorsports, one of the most iconic and premier teams of NASCAR.
Yet, if seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was still winning as routinely as in the past, would we even be having this conversation? I imagine not.
Full confession: I served as Lowe’s Board of Director’s human resources consultant for seven years. I grew to know Lowe’s leadership intimately. During my tenure, the NASCAR partnership with Johnson was one of the best sponsorships in sports branding.
This partnership has exhibited so many virtuous features; just to list off a few:
- Johnson is the consummate professional and ambassador for Lowe’s, never disparaging the brand. Lowe’s is a highly principled organization and wouldn’t have tolerated such nonsense. Johnson has carried the Lowe’s banner both inside and outside the sport through many avenues, such as his foundation.
- Lowes’s, headquartered in Mooresville, NC, is perfectly connected to the nerve center of most NASCAR race teams’ operations.
- Lowe’s employees commonly exuded pride in the success of their company’s brand on the track and its connection to the roots of stock car racing, and the “do-it-yourself” fans who coupled to the home improvement chain’s message.
- Lowe’s possessed a slew of internal analytics that supported the ROI on their Lowe’s sponsorship, even sticking through the famine of the 2008 mortgage crisis where home building and remodeling dried up.
- The CEO was authentically passionate about the sport and attended races throughout the season. We would continually chat about Johnson’s performance on the track, as well as his success at the Championship banquets.
I’m sure Lowe’s has a compelling business case for the shift to other strategic initiatives. Like investing in future on-line social selling strategies connected to the “Lowe’s for Pros” campaign. Yet, nothing feels remotely good about this move from a fan perspective.
Bewilderingly, why would Lowe’s not throttle down into a reduced primary sponsorship role for ½ of the 2019 season? Why abandon this winning affiliation entirely? Recall this is the same Lowe’s organization that took a flyer on Johnson, as unproven rookie in 2001, and hit the lottery ticket with one of the best of all-time. Lowe’s was there for Johnson’s first win, but certainly won’t be there for his last.
Above all, Jimmie Johnson stands on the precipice of breaking one of the most untouchable records in sports, namely a potential 8th Championship.
Why would Lowe’s not hang around for that thrill ride? The opportunity for Johnson to go out as the all-time champion and for his legacy to live forever in banners and posters immortalizing his 8th Championship wearing the Lowe’s insignia. That would be a marketing investment with an annuity stream of dividends in perpetuity.
Ironically, if I was Ace Hardware, I’d call up Hendrick Motorsports and work out a 2019 and beyond deal. Nothing like potentially going into the NASCAR’s record books eternalized as the sponsor of the driver who breaks the tie with Earnhardt and Petty of seven Championship banners and solidifies Jimmie’s place on the Mount Rushmore of the sport’s greats.
Indeed, Johnson, signed through the 2020 season, telegraphed this priceless opportunity to connect to his legacy, stating, “I have more to accomplish in this sport. I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically. I’m motivated. I’m focused on winning races and chasing more championships. Someone [his new sponsor] will be a BIG part of writing that story with us. I’m not going anywhere.” Boom! Confetti!
I’ll have more views to express over the course of the season, as I’m still wadded up on this uncoupling.
Like Toyota early last year, fans are still waiting for Johnson, crew chief Knaus, and all of the Hendrick Motorsports teams to get a handle on the new Chevy Camaro’s responsiveness and balance on the aero-dependent large speedways.
For now, Johnson comes back to Auto Club Speedway this weekend for the annual Auto Club 400, site of his first NASCAR Cup win in 2002. A homecoming to Southern California for the El Cajon native. A speedway where Johnson has established the gold standard as the winningest driver in NASCAR with six wins, the last in 2016 while wearing a Superman cape in Victory Lane. Also, a track record are Johnson’s five runner up finishes at ACS.
No better place for Johnson to get his mojo back than Victory Lane, ringing the “Mobell” at ACS.
By Ron Bottano
Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and @racingunplugged