HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) - Rick Hendrick sees hopeful signs in the sponsorship game. He hopes that will lead to more dollar signs.
The NASCAR team owner announced Saturday that Quaker State, already an associate sponsor on all four of his cars, is bumping up to a full sponsor on Mark Martin's No. 5 team for four races in 2011.
While that may not sound like much, Hendrick said it's a sign that companies are starting to look for marketing opportunities even as the U.S. economy struggles to recover from a deep recession.
``We're having a tremendous amount of discussions,'' he said. ``In the first half of 2009, nobody was talking about anything. Now a lot of people are talking. Things are happening. In general, I think the feeling is much better. People are now looking beyond what they've been through. They're not looking backward. They're looking forward.''
That's not to say the situation has totally turned.
Hendrick has yet to announce the sponsorship package for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, though the car owner conceded that talks with WalMart failed to yield a deal for 2011.
``We got down the road a bit, but timing is one of those things,'' Hendrick said. ``I think it's possible we'll do something down the road with them, but it won't be next year.
``But,'' he added, ``it's good to see companies have interest. At the end of 2008 and the 2009, it was pretty dismal. If somebody wasn't already out here on a car, you weren't talking to anybody. Now, there's interest from people who haven't been in the sport. It's kind of moving around a bit.''
Even an owner with as much success as Hendrick - his roster of drivers also includes four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and the popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. - has been forced to scramble for a hodgepodge of sponsorship deals.
Hendrick said he expects to have most of his backing lined up by November, though it's still possible that some cars might be unsponsored for a handful of races next year. In those cases, he'll put his own moniker - Hendrickcars.com - on the side.
``The economy is still right,'' he said. ``People are still trying to stretch their dollars. You've got to be fairly creative to make it work for everyone.''
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KEEP AN EYE ON JIMMIE: Four-time champion Jimmie Johnson hardly looks like the driver to beat with only two races left before the Sprint Cup playoff begins.
Not that anybody's counting him out.
Johnson is only ninth in the standings heading into Sunday's Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the only driver ever to win four straight titles has shown there's no one better when it gets down to those final 10 races.
``They are a contender until they lose one,'' Kyle Busch said. ``You can't count them out at all. I know Chad (Knaus, the crew chief) is a very smart individual and I know Jimmie is a very good race car driver. They will not be dumb when they get to the Chase. They'll be pretty good. I hope we've got the package to beat them throughout the Chase. But you definitely can't discount them.''
Johnson said he's been in this position before, ``where we were looking for a little speed for the Chase and we found it. I'm not too concerned about where we are.''
That said, he figures points leader Kevin Harvick will be the man to beat in the playoff.
``He's had consistency at all the different tracks throughout the season,'' Johnson said. ``He's really turned it around from where he was last season and where he's at this year. I give him a lot of credit.''
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NEW BUSINESS: David Ragan now has his name on more than just the side of the No. 6 car.
Ragan has taken over a Ford dealership in Perry, Ga., not far from his hometown of Unadilla. He won't be directly involved in David Ragan Ford, leaving that to his father, who's moving back home to care for his elderly parents and will run the day-to-day operations.
Ragan said he'll likely return in the next month of two for a formal grand opening. But all the heavy lifting has been done, so to speak.
``I spent the off week moving furniture,'' he said.
Ragan's race weekend got off to a good start when he won a late-model race on Friday night, his first victory at the track since his days racing Legends cars.
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LUG NUTS: Jeff Gordon's 3-year-old daughter, Ella, helped design the paint scheme that will be on the No. 24 car at this week's race. Known as ``My Papa's Car,'' the brightly colored scheme is designed to raise awareness for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. ... Denny Hamlin's top qualifying speed (187.380) was more than 5 mph slower than Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pole-winning effort (192.761) for the spring race. Much warmer temperatures led to the slower times.

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