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Pennzoil in sticky spot with Cup points leader Harvick
Published September 13, 2010
Pennzoil has spent nearly two decades as a primary team sponsor in NASCAR and has never really come close to seeing its brand name and signature yellow paint scheme win a championship.
Now, with Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil car sitting atop the series points heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the longtime sponsor finds itself as one of the favorites to clinch the title, if not the favorite.
But the position is bittersweet.
Shell-Pennzoil’s relationship with Richard Childress Racing and Harvick officially ends Dec. 1, just 10 days after the end of the season. Should Harvick maintain his points lead and win his — and the sponsor’s — first Cup championship, Shell-Pennzoil will have minimal opportunity to activate around it, or to utilize the champion driver during the offseason and buildup to the 2011 Daytona 500 in February.
Instead, the sponsor will become the primary partner on Penske Racing’s No. 22 car driven by Kurt Busch. It’s the first time since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was launched in 2004 that a primary sponsor has found itself backing one driver atop the standings while transitioning to another team and driver for the following year.
“It’s definitely awkward,” said Heidi Massey-Bong, Shell’s senior business adviser for NASCAR sponsorships. “We’re leaving somebody who I very much respect and appreciate what they’ve done in the sport, and going to somebody else.”
Shell-Pennzoil decided to leave RCR in late 2009, in the midst of a two-year winless streak for Harvick. It put out a request for proposals and wound up signing a new deal with Penske Racing because of the business-to-business opportunities that will result from providing oil and gas to Penske’s car dealerships and truck leasing companies.
That decision puts Shell-Pennzoil officials in the challenging position during this season’s Chase of making the most out of what could be a championship run with Harvick and RCR, while simultaneously preparing for the first season with Penske and Busch.
Harvick’s No. 29 car will be sponsored next season by Budweiser.
“The only negative is next year when they can’t use the equity of winning a championship,” said Trip Wheeler, president of the motorsports agency The Wheeler Co. “Right now they should be screaming from the rooftops about Kevin Harvick. They spent years trying to build an association with the guy, and when they do their marketing now the smart thing would be to brand themselves with a picture of the car and not Kevin. … The colors are going to stay the same.”
Harvick’s success has led Shell-Pennzoil to increase its activation plans during NASCAR’s 10-race Chase. It is adding point-of-sale promotions in the Fort Worth and Phoenix markets to encourage participation in its Shell Grocer Rewards Program. Participating customers at Kroger and Fry’s grocery stores will be encouraged to use their Kroger Plus Card and Fry’s V.I.P. Card to earn points that can be exchanged for discounts of 10 cents per gallon at participating Shell stations.
The Shell-Pennzoil pit crew will make an appearance at a Kroger Grocery Store in Fort Worth and Fry’s Food Store in Phoenix where they will hold a Pit Crew Bagging Challenge to foster participation in the program, as well.
“[Harvick’s] success has really created an interest from Shell and the partners to take advantage of their NASCAR asset,” said Todd Stonis, general manager at Sport Dimensions, which manages Shell-Pennzoil’s NASCAR activation. “It’s a natural fit. Who wouldn’t want the points leader and their car in their stores?”
In addition to the Grocer Rewards Program, Shell-Pennzoil will complete its seasonlong “Key to Clean” sweepstakes during the Chase. The promotion will award one of five finalists a customized Camaro SS that was up-fitted by the RCR Street Performance group.
In the midst of seeing all of those promotions to their conclusion, Shell-Pennzoil officials have been planning for the future. The marketing team has been speaking to officials at Penske Racing regularly and reviewing everything from transporter designs to trackside branding for the No. 22 car that Shell-Pennzoil will begin to sponsor after this season.
The biggest challenge it will face, Massey-Bong said, will be converting employees who became RCR and Harvick fans into Penske and Busch fans.
“I’d like to think we’ve done a good job of converting our employees and turning them into passionate race fans,” Massey-Bong said. “We got them to throw their weight behind RCR and Harvick, and we now have to say, ‘I know you did that, but we’ve made this change and I need you to trust us.’”
Massey-Bong admitted that should Harvick win the Cup championship, that conversion becomes more difficult. So does promoting the sponsor’s affiliation with a potential champion. Under a Harvick championship scenario, if Shell-Pennzoil were returning with Harvick, Massey-Bong said the sponsor would blow out its affiliation with his title run during the 2011 Daytona 500. Instead, it will have less than two weeks to promote its ties to the driver and enjoy the spoils of sponsoring a championship team.
“We knew we would lose some opportunities when we put out the RFP, and this would be one of them,” she said. “We’ll make up for it in business-to-business [at Penske], and when we look at it in terms of return-on-investment, we’ll be whole.”