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.
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.