NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Reimagining A NASCAR Winston Million

Did You Notice? … One of NASCAR’s former crown jewel events, part of the old Winston Million, continues to decline? The 2021 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway averaged 4.06 million viewers last Sunday (May 30), posting a 2.3 Nielsen rating that’s tied for its smallest audience since 1997. Compare that to the Indy 500, which drew a 3.1 rating and 5.58 million viewers, its best performance in five years.

Once riding NASCAR’s Cup Series popularity to the point it bypassed Indy, Charlotte has lost to its open-wheel competition the last six years running. The numbers aren’t even close, just like its on-track action that saw Kyle Larson whip the field to the tune of a 10-second victory.

Charlotte’s 600, stock car racing’s longest race, is now just a long summer’s nap on a 1.5-mile oval once considered one of the sport’s best intermediate tracks. In just the last four years, it’s lost the All-Star Race after years of underwhelming finishes and its fall date has been turned over to the infield road course. Fewer mechanical failures and four 100-lap stages have left it as just another intermediate race.

How can you inject fresh excitement into Charlotte? One way is to bring back the double, drivers attempting both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. No one’s done it since Kurt Busch in 2014 and the schedule isn’t conducive to anyone attempting it.

But there’s another way to resurrect a crown jewel: give it the financial respect and attention it deserves. Cue the Winston Million, NASCAR’s one-time bonus program that awarded a driver $1 million if he was to win three of the four biggest races on the schedule: the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Winning two of the four would earn someone a $100,000 bonus.

During the program’s initial run, from 1985-1997, only two drivers were able to win the million, both NASCAR Hall of Famers: Bill Elliott (1985) and Jeff Gordon (1997). However, there were several close calls, from Davey Allison (1992) to Dale Jarrett (1996), with each one bringing attention to the sport from people who don’t usually follow.

While the schedule has changed immensely since then, the idea of creating NASCAR “majors” with financial incentives remains a good one. Can we reimagine a Winston Million for 2022 and introduce it in conjunction with the sport’s Next Gen car?

I think we can. Here’s my idea for a new NASCAR bonus program that might up the level of competition at these tracks (Marcus Lemonis, are you listening?).

WINSTON MILLION, VERSION 2.0

Incentive: A $5 million bonus if you could win four of the following six races, based on each of the major NASCAR track types. Winning three of them gives you a $1 million bonus.

Daytona 500 (pack race superspeedway)

Bristol Dirt Race (dirt track)

Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte, 1.5-mile oval)

Indianapolis Grand Prix (road course — remember, we switched for 2021)

Southern 500 (Darlington, the sport’s oldest event on a track longer than 1 mile)

Martinsville (short track, fall event)

The old Winston Million included a race at Talladega. That feels unnecessary now as that track type makes up just four of the 36 races on the schedule. Compare that to seven road courses on the schedule and it feels like they should get equal billing. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which wasn’t around for most of the Winston Million days, would be elevated into a crown jewel event. What a perfect way to transition its road course into the Cup Series.

A longer schedule than the old days (the sport had just 29 races for most of the Winston Million era) requires a larger challenge. Adding the Bristol Dirt Race cements its addition to the schedule long term while making one of the craziest potential races even more wild. And Martinsville Speedway? As a chance to win $5 million dollars? How’s that for drama when it’s already the place that decides who makes the Championship 4 in the Phoenix Raceway finale the following week.

Winning four of six would be extremely difficult. The first three of these events have already been held this year and we have three different winners: Michael McDowell (Daytona), Joey Logano (Bristol) and Larson. Each one has already secured a playoff bid, barring a surprise turn of events but they’d all have extra incentive to go all out at Indianapolis.

The other rule involved in these races: no stages. Instead, give double points at the end of the race, from first to last place similar to what the IndyCar series does for its major events, like the Indy 500. Worried about brand consistency? How well do fans understand the point system now? At least with that bonus, the winner is guaranteed to leave the track earning the most points; stage racing provides no such guarantee.

See also
Up to Speed: Time for NASCAR to Rethink Stage Racing

Eliminating automatic cautions and increasing prestige might get drivers to race differently in the sport’s longest event. It’ll add intrigue to the other races in this format, leading to a potential scenario of multiple agendas at Martinsville. Could you imagine someone out of title contention, but in position to win $5 million running second behind a Round of 8 playoff driver in the final laps? The tension would be through the roof.

Of course, the hope is the Next Gen car also makes it easier for cars to pass on intermediate tracks, eliminating the 550 horsepower parade we’ve seen all too often. The thing is, Charlotte’s had over a half-dozen packages thrown its way since a “levigation” experiment in 2005 caused a disastrous set of races. It’s easy to be skeptical a new car won’t fix a problem 15+ years in the making.

So don’t throw the money at the racetrack; how long does it take after a repave for tracks to get competitive again? Instead, throw it at the drivers and see how they respond. You could even give Charlotte an added bonus: $1 million for any driver who finishes both Indy and the Coke 600 inside the top 10. Cup owner and Indy 500 all-time winner Roger Penske owns the IndyCar Series, making it easier to coordinate the double and those types of programs.

Stock car racing could use a boost at its most important events. Will someone bring the idea of the old Winston Million back to life?

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off…

  • Chase Elliott will be going for his sixth win in the last seven road course races. His Hall of Fame father never had more than six top-10 finishes at any one right-turn track.
  • Kurt Busch is 83 points out with 11 races left in the regular season after his mechanical failure at Charlotte. Win-or-bust mode? I’d say so. But that’s also what should scare the competition, as Busch has the ability to wheel it at a road course and pull an upset knocking a more consistent driver out of the postseason. Sonoma Raceway is one place he could do it, winning there as recently as 2011.
  • Ty Gibbs now has five ARCA wins, dominating that series, and two NASCAR Xfinity Series victories this season on a part-time schedule. How does this kid not reach Cup as early as 2023? It’s a developing story as Joe Gibbs Racing has four title-contending drivers already. Someone’s going to be the odd man out, right? Hard to imagine Coach Gibbs taking his grandson and putting him on a satellite team, even if it winds up being a third car at 23XI Racing.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

16 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Griffin

Enjoyed the write-up on how to reboot the ‘Winston Million’ program. Could see it being effective, just wish that Martinsville 2 would be moved back up to it’s original late September spot on the calendar, which would make it race #1 of the 2nd round.

As for where Ty ends up, I have a gut feeling that he ends up replacing a (retiring?) Hamlin in his late Uncle J.D.’s #11 in ’23. Joining him there would be Harrison Burton in the #19. Just a hunch…

JW Farmer

I would love to see the “Million” back. Unfortunately, it seems that the younger generation of fans have a negative perception of NASCAR (probably because they watched Talledaga Nights and can’t draw themselves from TikTok or Snapchat). NASCAR is still as exciting as it was to me in 1988 or 92′ or 99′ There are also not as many “cable” households as there use to be because everyone is using their phones or streaming services. A 10 second MOV? Well that was the norm in the 90’s. NASCAR took the “danger” out of the sport and Indycar racing still has that. Great piece. Pay attention, corporate America. Let’s get long term sponsors back. And for Matt Grimm, Hamlin is not retiring anytime soon.

Matt Griffin

Its Griffin, BTW. But yeah, I looked it up later on Jayski. Hamlin is signed through ’23 and beyond, so it might have to be the #19 or a 23/11 expansion car.

Tony Geinzer

I’d think the more realistic approach to the Winston Million Revival is having to need Natural Terrain Dirt Tracks to close having that Winston Cup Era Stat Hole, and I’d like to say if Chicago is going to be on the scene, albeit briefly, I would have to include Montreal or Long Beach.

I’d think that some of these places (Austin, Nashville Superspeedway) would merit a 2 to 4 Year Commitment and I’d like to see Gateway because their Fans wouldn’t like Missing the Cup Series and Memphis, especially if their Town’s Tourism is rebuilt on the Cup Series.

David Edwards

One factor that exists today is the number of multi car teams. They can use those numbers to manipulate the results to make it a farce.
So in short I like the idea, I think it’s time has passed.

sb

the dirt race at Bristol is a silly gimmick, not worthy of being a premiere event.

Bill B

I don’t think bringing back a Winston Million type promotion would move the needle much. I am all for it but I don’t think it’s the answer to NASCAR’s sagging ratings. I’m not sure there is an answer but it starts with the action on the track and the racing.

David Russell Edwards

IMHO the problem starts before you even get to the track. The average person cares far less about automobiles than they used to. The manufacturers are abandoning passenger cars for the more versatile SUV’s. And there are few reasons to modify vehicles from their factory specs.
So there is little connection between what is on the track and what is in our driveways. Does it matter? Probably not any more. And as TV gains more control over the length of events, there will be less reason to spend more time traveling to an event that time of the event itself.
In short lots of issues and few answers,

Bill B

I agree.
I do find it interesting that, as discussed in Matt’s column a few weeks ago, the F1 has gotten a bump in ratings by using reality television as the bait. Make people care about the drivers/characters first and their asses will find their way to watching the races. However I feel that will be a fleeting bump in the long run.
Perhaps NASCAR (and motorsports in general) should accept the fact that they are second tier sports entertainment with the potential to break into the mainstream once in a while when the planets align. Keeping in mind that there is very little they can do proactively to make people fans, therefore their number one concern should be keeping the fans they do have happy. Something NASCAR has failed at because they worked too hard trying to make fans and put diehard fans second.

David Edwards

But isn’t that exactly what NASCAR did? Tired of being played by the manufacturers in 65-66; they decided to make the drivers, not the cars the focus,
Worked fine for a while , but then the air started leaking out of the balloon.Now there is nothing left to talk about in a spec car series other than sponsors.
Meanwhile I suspect most Ferrari fans love the car more than the drivers. A little bump of reality tv is fine, it’s like the cherry on top of the sundae. But if the hero driver doesn’t perform the crowd at his favorite restaurant may not be buying him drinks.
Regardless in Baku this week the noise is about flexible wings and who’s cheating. In Sonoma. Zzzzzz
What more is there to say?

Jake

The Winston million wouldn’t move the needle on any media attention. All of the recognizable names already make millions.

Plus, good luck finding a sponsor willing to fork over that money. They would take out an insurance policy on it!

janice

yep that’s a lot of coin. Nascar can’t get any one organization to sponsor the “premier “ series. Aren’t there 4 series sponsors this year.

the glory days are gone.

besides a million bucks doesn’t mean as much to the drivers today.

Mike

The federal reserve has debased our currency nearly 3x since the inception of the Winston. 1 million bucks doesn’t have the same shock value as it did then. It be closer to $2 1/2 or $3 million today. Besides back then the drivers were not wealthy prima-donnas so there’s that.

Jo

I’ve said for years that NASCAR’s big problem came from their decision to compete against NFL football early in the 90’s and early 2000’s. That came from a bump in interest when a new breed of drivers like Jeff Gordon entered the sport, but it didn’t last.

NASCAR is, and always has been, a niche sport, much like tennis or cycling. Just go to a major sports portal like Yahoo and see the sports featured. You have to click on “Other” to get to auto racing, tennis, cycling, horse racing. Any casual viewer who tuned in to the Indy 500 probably stayed, but that same viewer would have quickly switched from the boring Coke 600. Hopefully, the “new car” will bring a more exciting and viewer-friendly product to the audience, but in today’s world, nobody is going to waste time on the tedium that is NASCAR’s 1.5 mile oval racing.

Bringing back the Million won’t help. The NXS Series has the Dash-for-Cash and I doubt that draws many viewers in.

Matt Griffin

On point. Yours and Bill B have the best takes so far on this subject. The Netflix show has been a hugely successful PR win for F1 after years of negative publicity that occurred (largely) under Bernie Ecclestone’s rule.
The lesson for NASCAR should be that if they want to draw in the casual, non-gearhead viewers, you don’t focus on the cars or a convoluted points system to generate excitement. You sell the sport’s PERSONALITIES!

rg72

I’m not sure that $1 million or $2 million or whatever the prize is will create much excitement among fans.
For years, the All-Star Race offered $1 million to the winner and the fan buzz was less and less over the years. Having a different format probably didn’t help in that regard.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch