Jimmie Johnson is a dynamo on four wheels, but his on-track success hasn't made him NASCAR's No. 1 marketer.
Despite securing an unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup title, the driver's polite, noncontroversial style has pushed him toward the middle of the pack in popularity and commercial endorsements. He has the championships, but the bulk of marketing money has flowed to less successful drivers, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"For Jimmie, this guy's got larger-than-life talent behind the wheel, but he goes about his business in such a methodical and quiet and efficient way that people aren't connecting with him," said Mike Mooney, vice president of motorsports for sports marketing agency Millsport.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has secured an endorsement deal with Lowe's through 2015 and a deal with HBO for a miniseries about his life leading up to next year's Daytona 500. But among nonracing fans, Johnson remains remarkably unrecognized.
The Davie-Brown Index, which is used by Millsport to give scores for various traits related to the marketability of athletes and other stars, rated Johnson ninth among NASCAR drivers, nestled between Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip. Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty and Kyle Busch all rated ahead of Johnson.
Not that Johnson is particularly bothered by this.
"You can read any of the data provided and skew it any different ways, and there's a lot of favorable things out there comparing me to other athletes worldwide," he said. "Within our sport, I'm racing with some of the greats. ... There are a lot of factors that play into that, and I'm very proud of the fan base that I have."
The popularity of some NASCAR drivers is easily explained. Earnhardt has a devoted following because his father was one of the sport's most revered drivers. Stewart is one of NASCAR's most outspoken drivers.
"Because [Johnson] is a very nice guy, he doesn't get the magazine and media coverage outside of the sport, which then means mainstream America doesn't know who he is and doesn't know his story," said David Schwab, managing director of Octagon First Call, a company that matches athletes with companies. "That affects his appeal, and if you don't have some sort of 'it' factor or personality trait, it's hard to create advertising and be creative around that."
Beyond his lack of recognition in the general public, however, there are many things about Johnson that marketers love. The most recent Davie-Brown Index showed Johnson rates highly in likability and trustworthiness and that he is an effective spokesperson for the companies he partners with. He rated first among drivers in "aspiration," which measures the degree to which people hope to be like him.
"The other key attributes marketers are looking at he scores really high," Mooney said. "Is he marketable? Yeah, he's very marketable. He just doesn't really get the headlines you would think he'd get winning four consecutive titles."
Officials from Lowe's said they have no complaints about Johnson as a corporate partner.
"Since Jimmie's rookie season in 2002, he and the number 48 team have been a source of tremendous excitement and pride for [our] 228,000 employees," spokeswoman Julie Yenichek said. "Jimmie's fantastic work ethic and commitment to excellence resonates across our company."