To fully appreciate the power of one of the greatest marketing deals of all time, consider the scene at Frank and Mary's Catfish House in little Pittsboro, Ind.
The bar area is decorated with Dale Earnhardt Jr. posters, flags, memorabilia and even a "Go Junior" picture. "It even lights up," one of the bartenders said Thursday. Most of the items contain the logo of Earnhardt's soon-to-be former chief sponsor, Budweiser.
This could be any little bar or restaurant in any little town in America. Except Pittsboro (pop 1,500) isn’t just any little town in America.
It's the hometown of Jeff Gordon.
How Junior and Bud were able to infiltrate that deep into the marketplace, dominating the walls of one of the only restaurants in the town where one of his biggest rivals attended high school, is just part of what made their relationship so remarkable.
Because even as Gordon outpaces Junior in Cup championships (four to zip) and total race victories (79 to 17), and is a favorite in the current Chase – for which Junior failed to even qualify – nobody had more street cred (or dirt road cred, if you will) in NASCAR than Earnhardt and his beer of choice.
And now, if you can believe it, that's gone.
Though it already had been announced the relationship was ending, Junior officially put the Bud era behind him Wednesday – mostly due to a variety of contractual relationships his new team, Hendrick Motorsports, already had in place. There apparently was little that could be done, so in a sense no one is to blame here.
But that doesn't mean Junior won't regret the split of this perfect partnership.
His new beverage of choice is Amp Energy Drink, brought to you by Mountain Dew, a subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc. (which already had a deal with Hendrick). They trotted out his new car design Wednesday and (with all due respect to the National Guard part) it didn't look nearly as cool as his old simple red race car.
That one was distinctive; kind of a beer can on wheels he could whip around and was easy to find on TV. This new one is dull, just run of the mill.
Meanwhile poor old Bud trotted out its new NASCAR man: Kasey Kahne, of all people, last seen in a major advertising campaign causing overheated soccer moms to crash their cars. The people at Anheuser-Busch are pretty smart, but this one seems bizarre on all levels.
As for Junior, in a lot of ways this is the biggest, or at least most visual, change in his much-publicized decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. He'll have a new team and a new number (88) but if he had kept the same paint job on his car it would be difficult for many fans to even notice – although the absence of blown engines every week might have clued people in.
But while a new team is one thing, no longer associating with Bud is entirely different. This was the best sports marketing relationship since Michael Jordan met Phil Knight and convinced the world that it was his Nikes and not athletic ability that made MJ fly through the air.
"On the surface it went together like beer and pretzels," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It was perfect."
Bud was Junior. And Junior was Bud. He sold the beer and the beer sold him. There wasn't a better extension of the Junior brand.
His legions of fans, no doubt, drank the stuff. But their ranks also swelled because of what Bud said about the driver.
Tony Stewart is sponsored by Home Depot, Gordon by DuPont and Jimmie Johnson by Lowe's. I don't know what any of that means or what it says about those guys. Can Stewart and Johnson build me a new deck? Is Gordon good with plastics? Are those reasons to root for them?
Bud defined Earnhardt. It said something about him. It introduced new fans to his laid-back, easy-going and even occasionally partying ways. It accentuated his everyman personality, which belies the fact he grew up very rich and very famous, every advantage in life at his fingertips.
Junior would've still been Junior without that sponsorship deal. And he still will be. But it is naive to think Bud, and all those posters in all those bars across America, didn't play a part in making him even more popular, at least in life, than even his father.
Junior's been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR for four consecutive years. He should win again this season, despite not winning a single race. Dale Sr. only won it once despite winning seven championships.
That's a powerful two-way connection you just don't mess with.
"A brand can help memorialize an athlete's own position," Carter said. "There hasn't been a better example recently than Bud and Junior."
People smarter than me say this is just the maturation of Junior's brand, that at 32 years old he needed to put his party boy image behind him. Personally, I always thought Junior's appeal is that his brand appeared so unmanaged. And if drinking beer after age 32 is wrong, then I don't want to be right.
"People understand what our model has been since we've started, that we'd be ourselves," Earnhardt said. "(Pepsi) knew coming in that I like being myself, and being honest and telling the truth."
There is little question Junior is great for Pepsi. He changes the game for them. There is nothing like NASCAR when it comes to these deals, because unlike other sports the logo is the driver's actual uniform and vehicle. But do Amp and the National Guard (his secondary sponsor) help Junior like Bud did?
I think conditions can change," Carter said. "Just because something was once perfect doesn't mean it can't outlive its usefulness. You could say in 10 years, 'Hey, Pepsi was the perfect fit.'"
Meanwhile, there is Bud, who like an insecure lover is dealing with the breakup by going after the completely wrong man.
Kasey Kahne? Seriously, Kasey Kahne? Is he old enough to drink?
"He looks like a guy more likely to dunk his cookies (in milk) as drink a Bud," Carter said.
Kahne is a fine driver (despite his struggles this season), and I'm sure a nice guy. As we know, chicks dig him, at least according to Allstate. But this seems like a complete 180.
"Will he be the typical Bud guys of decades before? No," Tim Schoen of Anheuser-Busch admitted Wednesday. "We're going to see a new marketing position that might be slightly different than you've seen in years past."
Bud has sold a lot of beer through the years, so they probably know better than me.
"Their track record suggests they don't make too many big gaffes," Carter said.
Who knows, Kahne might make them so popular they'll need to drain the Mississippi River to brew enough. But at first glance, I doubt it. Why wouldn't Bud go with Kyle Busch, who you can at least envision drinking the stuff. Busch is expected to sign with M&M's, which would actually seem like a better fit for Kahne.
I called the biggest Kasey Kahne fan I know Thursday, my niece Beth Poston, to get a second opinion on all this flip-flopping. (My apologies for interviewing a family member).
She's 19, a sophomore in college and is fairly obsessed with the sport. In fact, she was on her way to a blood drive because they'd give her a free NASCAR T-shirt. And she knows her racing. The reason she initially became a Kahne fan is because, and forgive me for using such a technical racing term, "He's hot."
"Well, he is," she said.
She's a marketer's dream, too, completely brand loyal to her man.
"I was thinking of joining the UAW just because of him," she cracked about of one of Kahne's other sponsors.
So is she a Bud girl now?
"Absolutely," she said.
There is only one problem.
"I don't drink," she said. "I've only had a few sips in my entire life."
I think that's my point here.
- Kasey Kahne