NASCAR: You Don’t Need Rain to Get Hard Racing

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports /

The GEICO 500 was run under the threat of rain for almost the entire race. Because of that there was a sense of urgency for almost the entire 500 miles for the first time in years. We can do that every week, we just need to look at NASCAR history to find out how.

From NASCAR’s infancy through the 70’s, the purse money for finishing a race up front often was barely enough to keep you going from week to week. The way drivers could make extra money was bonus monies paid through the race. There was lap money for leading laps, certain sponsors would have a bonus for leading at certain laps, passing the most cars and finishing in certain positions. Those dollars at that time could make or break a drivers season.

On Sunday we saw three and four wide racing for almost the entire race. Normally in restrictor plate racing there will be a long section of the race where the field lines up and tries to get to the end of the race. Reason for that is the unintended consequence of the win and in format of the NASCAR chase. Everyone knows they have a chance to win at a plate track, so they are not willing to race hard early and end up knocked out of the race.

We see the same thing happening at most tracks, long portions of the race where drivers settle in and make sure they are going to get to the finish. Those sections of the race are where viewers turn away from the race, and some don’t come back. Its also a reason many people say they don’t go to races anymore. We have seen better racing on the track this year than we have in a long time, but the survival instinct that drivers and teams have is impacting the racing as a whole.

Watching the urgency of the racing Sunday made me wonder what it would take to get all NASCAR races to be raced like this. I remembered Darrell Waltrip talking on a broadcast years ago that he knew before the race started every lap there was bonus money. That he would drive hard to make sure that he would be leading at the halfway point to get that bonus and lead as much as possible to get the lap money.

Not long ago NASCAR used to award a bonus point for leading a lap during the race. We would see odd pit strategies and hard driving to get that lap led. Unfortunately teams were manipulating restarts and on track racing to make sure certain drivers could get their bonus point and NASCAR smartly removed that bonus. This was when NASCAR was working hard to get a focus on winning the championship, not racing for points.

The idea of bonus money as opposed to points is a solid one. It would keep teammates form manipulating the race since the money would go to the driver. NASCAR could be creative and allow sponsorship of certain laps by companies that could be included in the broadcast. You could even include a points bonus entering the chase for the most bonus money earned throughout the season. That would even make the earning of bonus money more important.

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It would have to be an amount of money that makes it worth it to the drivers. They have such an intrenched mindset of getting to the end it will take significant dollars to change that. We see what has happened to driving for the win since there became an automatic birth in the chase when you win. Imaging seeing that intensity for the majority of the race. It could be first step to getting team racing out of the sport if there was extra driver money spread throughout the race.

The amounts would have to be significant enough to garner headlines and commentary during the race. There still are awards earned during the race, but they are so small they never get mentioned. They could be in conjunction with other bonus awards that might cause a multiplier. Something like that would keep a driver driving hard and passing cars throughout the race. That kind of racing would keep fans tuned in for 500 miles.

As improved as the racing has been this season, there is still too much contentment with a top 20 finish. We need to see more emotion from the drivers about not running up front. NASCAR has been searching for anything they can to bring more excitement to racing. All they have to do is look to their past to find a path to the future. Bringing back meaningful bonus money could do just that without changing the fabric of the sport.

NASCAR fans and the teams have seen enough major changes in the cars and the rules to last a long time. This could be implemented with cost to teams or confusion to the fans, just an addition to get excited about. With the new television deal there is plenty of money to go around and the charter system is set up to spread it out more evenly. A cash bonus structure could pump some much need life into NASCAR and help get everyone around the sport excited again.