The National Guard announced Wednesday it will not return as a sponsor for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but when exactly that decision takes effect is unclear.
In a news release posted to the Guard's website Wednesday night, the Guard says its current contracts to sponsor Earnhardt's car at Hendrick Motorsports and the IndyCar of Graham Rahal expire at the end of this season.
But in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports, Hendrick said the team "has a contract in place to continue the National Guard program at its current level in 2015.
"We have not been approached by the Guard about potential changes and plan to honor our current agreement."
The Guard's acting director, Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, said "significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business."
The Guard said it spent $32 million as a sponsor for Earnhardt this season, which includes appearing as the primary sponsor on Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 Chevrolet for 20 races. It also spent $12 million to sponsor Rahal, who drives for his father Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
"We were informed this afternoon that the National Guard will end all sponsorship of motorsports, including both IndyCar and NASCAR at the conclusion of the 2014 seasons," Rahal said in a release. "This is obviously very disappointing news to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing given the significant incremental brand exposure we have worked to produce for the National Guard in our first season together, including various off-track marketing and advertising programs focused on supporting the mission set forth."
Congress has scrutinized the arrangement of the Guard's spending in motorsports, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said before a May hearing the Guard was "wasting a bunch of money on a very expensive sports sponsorship."
In May, USA TODAY reported that in 2012, the Guard spent $26.5 million on the NASCAR sponsorship and did not have a single recruit to show for it.
"As part of a broad recruitment marketing strategy, motorsports partnerships -- including NASCAR -- played an important role in helping the National Guard build strong brand awareness and in turn helped us achieve extraordinary recruiting and end-strength objectives over the past decade," said Army Guard marketing chief Lt. Col. Christian Johnson, who heads Army Guard marketing, in a statement on its website Wednesday.
"Our NASCAR sponsorship was principally a marketing program, intended primarily to build awareness of the National Guard as a career option," Johnson said. "The NASCAR sponsorship allowed the National Guard to leverage a 77 million fan base and the sport's most popular driver."
The decision comes at an interesting time.
NASCAR's 11-time most popular driver has been in the spotlight even more this season thanks to a career renaissance of sorts under the guidance of crew chief Steve Letarte, in his final season before leaving to become an analyst with NBC Sports next year.
Earnhardt won his third race of the season Sunday, sweeping the Sprint Cup Series events at Pocono Raceway. The last time he won three races or more in a season was a decade ago.
He has made several appearances on national media, including ESPN, which picked up Cup coverage at the Brickyard 400 in late July and will broadcast the remainder of the season's schedule. Because of his performance, Earnhardt is likely to be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- a 16-driver, 10-race shootout -- in which he will try to win an elusive first career championship.
Earnhardt, who turns 40 in October, is beloved among his fan base -- Junior Nation -- and joined Twitter after winning his second Daytona 500 in February. His social media acumen continues to blossom, which seemingly could only bring more eyeballs to a sport that has seen a decline in TV ratings and fans in seats since the economic downturn.
At the start of the season, Earnhardt was set to have 20 races sponsored by the Guard and five sponsored by PepsiCo (Diet Mountain Dew, Mountain Dew Kickstart) along with 13 races without sponsorship (one such race -- at Sonoma Raceway -- ended up being sponsored by Kelley Blue Book).
In April, Hendrick announced it signed Nationwide Insurance to a three-year deal which included 12 races on Earnhardt's car starting next year (13 in 2016-17).