AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- For sale! Made-for-TV premium ad space on the hood of the car of NASCAR's most popular driver.
Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. has coveted sponsorship up for grabs. In fact, his No. 88 Chevrolet lacks a primary sponsor for about one-third of the 36 Sprint Cup races this season.
The perfect corporate sponsorship has yet to materialize for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. Both are preaching patience, believing the right deal will eventually fall into place, and not a dire sign that big business has soured on NASCAR.
"We're just looking for the right corporations that are a good fit for us, that are long-term, that want to be in the sport for a while," Earnhardt said. "You don't just take the first guy that comes along."
Earnhardt is one of the lucky drivers that can afford to be picky in the race for cash.
But Hendrick is not alone when it comes to teams still trying to make all the sponsor pieces fit for a season that opens with Sunday's Daytona 500. Stewart-Haas Racing -- owned and operated by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart -- has about 20 races spread out over three cars that need a top sponsor.
Not even NASCAR's biggest stars are immune from the economic pinch that plagues a sport dependent on Fortune 500 dollars.
Earnhardt's sponsorship dried up when Pepsi, through Diet Mountain Dew and Amp, sliced its sponsorship from 20 races to five in 2013. The National Guard did bolster its support of the No. 88, going from 16 to 20 races. Earnhardt, who's made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship each of the last two seasons, is somewhat hindered in finding the right fit because of conflicts with committed corporate sponsors. For example, his Pepsi deal is the reason he ditched Budweiser when he signed with Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.
At Daytona, Earnhardt has the National Guard on the No. 88 for "The Great American Race." His sponsorship deals run low around mid-summer, so there's time to sign new business partners.
Earnhardt is one of the superstar faces of NASCAR. Even as the wins have dried up, he was still voted NASCAR's most popular driver for each of the last 10 years. He can't be associated with any fleeting or cheesy sponsors.
"You have to think about what's good for his image," Hendrick said. "Some of that has stopped us. There's been a lot of interest."
Hendrick announced at Daytona he locked up Lowe's for five-time champ Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevy for 2014. Lowe's has sponsored Johnson for the first 399 races of his Cup career. With a new paint scheme, Lowe's again will be on the side of the car for start No. 400 in the Daytona 500.
Lowe's, in fact, is likely one of the biggest sponsor spenders in NASCAR. While most numbers are never publicly announced, NASCAR insiders say it costs about $18 million to $20 million a year to fund an elite driver's car for a full season. Some of the low-budget teams try and get by on around $5 million.
"You can have the best financed team in the series, but if they don't know how to apply it, it doesn't matter," Stewart said. "There's teams that have taken less money and gotten better results out of it because they know how to use the money, where to put it."
Stewart-Haas lost the U.S. Army from Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevy and Office Depot is gone from Stewart's No. 14. Danica Patrick came aboard this season with the potential of rare, full-season sponsorship from Go Daddy. Winning the Daytona pole only spiked the buzz among all the brands.
Drivers are hampered by NASCAR policy in some cases. Sprint's exclusive naming rights deal for the Cup series eliminates other communications companies like AT&T from consideration, and big tobacco sponsorship money is no longer welcome in NASCAR.
Unlike other sports, where a fast food chain could become the official burger of multiple teams in the same league, there's no crossover in Cup. Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon won't both be driving with Lowe's plastered on the car in the same race.
But walking down pit road is still like entering a Costco: chips and soda, oil and beer, car parts and fertilizer as far as you can see. Still, challenges remain.
"It just continues to be a tough sponsorship market," said Jill Gregory, the NASCAR vice president of industry services who helps connects sponsors with teams. "There's more inventory available and I think teams are starting to have to get more creative. Some of that sponsorship that cascaded down to the Nationwide and Truck Series are sticking with Cup. There's more competition than ever."
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