CONCORD, N.C. (AP) - Rick Hendrick never panicked as the season stretched on and he still didn't have a sponsorship deal for Jeff Gordon.
Why? Because he always had a contingency plan to fall back on. It gave him the ability to be discerning when it came to the four-time NASCAR champion.
Then came the potential pairing with the AARP Foundation, which began talks on a sponsorship program with Hendrick Motorsports in September. The deal quickly fell into place, and the foundation's ``Drive to End Hunger'' campaign was announced Wednesday as Gordon's primary sponsor for the next three years.
``We had a deal in our pocket. It was a verbal agreement,'' Hendrick said of the second suitor, which he refused to identify. ``But this one came only faster, quicker and had more potential.''
More potential for both sides.
The cause-related sponsorship is the first of its kind to step in as primary sponsor for a major race team. It's a good fit for Hendrick, who has devoted a considerable amount of time and money to charitable causes.
The American Association of Retired Persons plans to use its sponsorship to raise both money and awareness of hunger in America. Statistics given by AARP on Wednesday said an estimated 51 million Americans who go hungry each night, and six million are over the age of 60.
Jo Ann Jenkins, president of the AARP Foundation, said the numbers are startling to most Americans, and a the partnership with Gordon should lead to increased donations. But earning charitable donations from NASCAR fans - according to demographics released by NASCAR in 2007, 53 percent of its fan base have an average income of below $50,000 - could be difficult as they still try to recover from the recession.
Jenkins said the typical donation to the AARP Foundation is small, in the $10-to-$20 range, and the investment on Gordon's car will pay for itself.
Jenkins would not disclose how much the AARP Foundation is paying, but the sponsorship is for 22 races next year beginning with the Daytona 500. The industry going rate is estimated to be $15 million for a full 36-race schedule, and Budweiser is believed to have paid $10 million for 22 races with Richard Childress Racing beginning next season.
``I don't think we have any doubt in our mind that the initial investment the AARP has put into this, the money raised from this is going to far exceed that investment,'' Jenkins said. ``This not only is about raising the money and using the initial investment from AARP, but how do we solve this in a country rich as ours so that no one in this country is going hungry.''
Wednesday's announcement ends a season-long sponsorship search for Hendrick Motorsports. The team needed to replace a portion of races that Gordon's longtime sponsor, DuPont, will no longer fund.
Hendrick said the car is full for 2011, but would not reveal what level DuPont and Pepsi will have in filling out the remaining 16 races - two of which are non-points events - on the schedule. He said an announcement on the remainder of the schedule is coming.
``With Jeff's following and the respect that everyone in the sport has for him, and the way we can maybe move the needle, I take this as a personal challenge,'' Hendrick said. ``If we can do something ... to feed the hungry, then I think it will be more of a blessing and a feel good and a positive at the end of the day than all those (championship) banners hanging in the back (of the race shop).''

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