Lack of sponsorship. It's a phrase that's become a gut-wrenching reality for even the biggest teams in the Sprint Cup Series. And as the 2012 season gets closer, the absence of sponsor dollars has left drivers and teams scrambling. And potentially shrinking.
Let's start with Richard Childress Racing, which as of now looks to run three cars full-time in 2012. RCR has four cars this season. The minus-1 is a result of Clint Bowyer's departure to Michael Waltrip Racing, a move that came about because of — you guessed it — sponsor woes.
Bowyer locked in 5-Hour ENERGY as a sponsor for 2012 and initially approached RCR with the deal, but the financial package the company offered apparently wasn't enough for Richard Childress to keep Bowyer in house.
RCR did land Budweiser as Kevin Harvick's primary sponsor beginning in 2011 and will retain General Mills for 2012 and beyond, but neither commitment is full-time. Budweiser scaled back the number of races it will serve as a primary sponsor, while General Mills remains in a limited capacity.
At Roush Fenway Racing, Matt Kenseth doesn't have a sponsor for 2012 after Crown Royal's departure, and it's been reported that UPS is leaving the No. 6 and David Ragan at the end of the season. While Carl Edwards subsequently denied that UPS was heading to his team, the future is uncertain for Ragan and the No. 6.
And yes, you read that correctly, Matt Kenseth, a former champion, does not have a primary sponsor lined up for next season.
Roush has run Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse unsponsored in the Nationwide Series, but it would be almost implausible to think that the organization could run even one car in the Cup Series without a sponsor, let alone two.
Red Bull Racing may cease operations at the end of the year if no one purchases the team. Red Bull has already filed to the state of North Carolina that 152 layoffs are expected by December 17. (The notice is required by the North Carolina Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act.)
While Kasey Kahne's future is solid, as he moves to the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, Brian Vickers' is not. In the last year of his contract with Red Bull, Vickers as of now has no seat for 2012.
Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing will add a third car next season, at least part-time, for Danica Patrick (with Go Daddy as a sponsor), but as of now that's only for the 12 races she's lined up for. Stewart has said that he'd like to run that third car full-time, with Mark Martin in the seat when Patrick's not driving. But, alas, there's that sponsorship issue again.
"If we could find the money, he would be our leading candidate," Stewart said at Atlanta.
It should be noted that Stewart doesn't have full sponsorship for Ryan Newman's No. 39, either.
Why the flood of sponsor woes this season?
While NASCAR has been hurt by the souring economy, a heavy impact is being felt now that sponsor contracts are beginning to expire. With the consistently escalating costs of running a Cup team, companies are struggling to afford the price tag attached to sponsoring a car — be it on a part-time or full-time basis. Not counting the two Red Bull Racing cars, just seven drivers — Jimmie Johnson with Lowe's, Paul Menard with Menards, Joey Logano with Home Depot, Denny Hamlin with FedEx, Brad Keselowski with Miller Lite and David Ragan with UPS — will have had a single sponsor for the entirety of the 2011 season.
This is why it's such a big deal that 5-Hour ENERGY is making the jump from the Nationwide Series to the Cup Series, even if it isn't on a full-time basis. 5-Hour will sponsor Bowyer for 24 races in 2012, leaving 12 races open, something team owner Michael Waltrip did not let go unnoticed.
"We look forward to this announcement becoming public knowledge so we can begin the pursuit to put some more folks on the car with Clint," Waltrip said before promoting Bowyer's ability as a pitchman. "He does a great job telling the story. He's just very energetic. I just love the way he goes about conducting himself and hopefully that will allow us to sign up some more sponsors to fill out the car."
Looking at the big picture, the absolute worst-case scenario for next season would see three fewer big-team cars attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500. While that number will likely be less than that, there aren't many, if any, new teams entering the Cup Series. Plus, it's doubtful that anyone will be able to make the leap from starting-and-parking to running full races consistently without … sponsorship.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Steve Jobs' death puts sports in perspective
• Sources say NFL is unhappy with downtown L.A. plan
• Video: NFL's Week 5 locks to win