Bill Elliott’s victory in the 1985 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway did more than earn him $1 million.
It put NASCAR’s premier series – then the Winston Cup Series – in the nation’s limelight, which wasn’t a common occurrence. People were following the race all week. Sports Illustrated covered it, another rare happening.
Elliott’s victory marked his third win out of the sport’s four crown jewel races — The Daytona 500, the richest race; the Winston 500, the fastest; the Coca-Cola 600, the longest; and the Southern 500, the oldest.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company promised $1 million to any driver who could pull off three of the big four races, and from 1985-97, only Elliott and Jeff Gordon in 1997 won the million.
It gained the sport lots of notoriety whenever a driver had a chance to win them. Fans tuned in.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of major monetary bonus for a driver to win three of Sprint Cup’s four biggest events? A million dollars isn’t enough anymore.
I propose the Sprint Multi-Million.
Any driver to win three of NASCAR’s four “majors” gets a $5 million bonus, a considerable amount high enough to be something keeping drivers chasing trophies and glory.
There’s only one problem: What are NASCAR’s four biggest races? The marquee events seem to have changed as much as the sport’s superstars and the cars they drive.
The PGA Tour has The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.
The Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 are easy choices. Daytona is the biggest race of the year, and the 600 is a Memorial Day weekend tradition unlike, well, anything not raced in Indianapolis.
Speaking of Indy, the Brickyard 400 – despite not always having the most competitive races – also qualifies for my top four. It’s the one Sprint Cup event raced annually at the oldest track on the circuit.
There’s history. There’s intrigue. There’s even the occasional lead change. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t even win it every year.
The fourth major is where it gets tough.
Darlington would be a great pick. The Southern 500 as the old-time fans knew it, however, ceases to exist. It’s not raced on Labor Day weekend. It’s raced on whatever day NASCAR decides to schedule it from year to year, and what we call the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is actually a descendant of the Rebel 400.
But what fits the Sprint Multi-Million more? Bristol’s night race is one that fans often view with excitement. The same goes for the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami.
Darlington, however, is Darlington. It’s special. It’s The Lady In Black, The Track Too Tough To Take Off The Schedule.
It’s gone from two race dates to one, but fans still fill the stands and drivers put on a show.
Under my four majors, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would call this season bittersweet. He’s having a banner year – he won the Daytona 500, after all – but Kevin Harvick’s last-lap pass of Earnhardt at Darlington robbed Earnhardt of what would have been two majors this season.
NASCAR needs more eyes glued to television sets and more seats filled at its racetracks. Changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, making winning more of a priority and points racing less important, are good for the sport.
The Sprint Multi-Million would be another solid addition. There’s marketing potential in that the fourth race, the Brickyard 400, is in late July or early August, so there’s no Chase overlap.
NASCAR has shown it’s not averse to change. Maybe if it ponies up more pocket change to its drivers, we’ll see more fireworks.
It’s worth a shot.