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The Wild and Wacky World of NASCAR Prize Money

Racing
The Wild and Wacky World of NASCAR Prize Money

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images

Have you ever looked at the wrap up for a pro golf tournament online or in a newspaper on the Monday after it concludes? Often, not only will you see how everyone finished and what their scores were, but also how much money they earned as a result of their play. And you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the winner gets the biggest amount of prize money, the second-place finisher(s) gets a little less, and so on down the leader board.

This is the logical way sports are structured: a pure meritocracy. In all types of individual sports from golf and tennis to snowboarding and darts, the better you fare, the more cash you take home. Team sports follow a similar pattern, as playoff bonuses per team or player increase as a given club advances in the playoffs.

And then there’s NASCAR. Whose payout system can best be described as – well, wacky.

NASCAR’s Curious Money Payouts

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Images

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Images

Cases in point:

– In April of 2008 at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned $99,125, while Ryan Newman netted $110,718 and Matt Kenseth banked $111,466. But Newman finished dead last, while Kenseth came in 38th and Earnhardt finished… ninth.

– Two months earlier in California, Brian Vickers and Jeff Burton finished just out of the top ten. But the 12th-place Burton’s paycheck was $43,558 more than that of Vickers, who came in 11th.

– And at this year’s Daytona 500, Paul Menard posted a 32nd place finish and earned $550,702 – which was at least $175,000 more than every racer who finished between 13th and 31st. The 12th-place finisher, Landon Cassil, earned just $306,850 – which was less money than every other competitor except those in the last four finishing spots.

How does this happen? Are purse payouts a lot more random in NASCAR than elsewhere? Or are the organizers just a little funny in the head from all those track fumes?

There’s actually a method (sort of) to all this madness. Let’s take a closer look at how NASCAR racers and their teams are paid for a given race.

Finishing Purse

nascar

The most basic component of the prize money system is the same as it is for all other sports: performance. A certain amount is designated for the race winner, a lesser amount for the runner up, less still for the third-place finisher, and so on down the line to the 43rd finisher. Like in golf, if you qualify for the final day’s competition, you’re automatically in the money (and if you don’t, you’re not). The only other rules governing this aspect was implemented in 2013, which states that the 39th through the 43rd spots must be separated by at least $4,000; this was intended to eliminate the “start and park” practices by some race teams.

Incentive Pay

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Images

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Images

In addition to how a racer finishes, there are also ways to make money based on what he or she does during the race. For instance, this year’s Daytona 500 featured the 3M Lap Leader Award, which gave money to whomever led the most laps during the race (this year, it was Earnhardt with 54). Also, Austin Dillon earned some extra cash to go with his ninth-place finish for capturing the Sherwin-Williams Fastest Lap award. In past years, the “most strategic move” has also garnered extra dough. These prizes start at around $5,000 and go up from there.

Contingency Money

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports images

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports images

After that, the whole pay scale gets a little trickier. For each race, there is a certain amount of what is called contingency money that is set aside by the event’s sponsors. Put simply, this is extra money awarded to different racing teams – but only if they display a certain sponsor’s logo on their cars and/or use a specific product. These bonuses generally range between $1,500 and $7,500 per team, and can either be given to a single car (like the top finisher) or a group of cars (such as the top five finishers). But distribution of the money is dependent on the car displaying the right decal; otherwise, the prize goes to the next-place car who has the decal on it.

So why don’t cars just put all the proper decals on their cars to qualify for contingency money? One, because there’s usually not enough room on the car for all of them to be seen properly; and two, they may have other sponsorship deals with competing products or companies.

Special Plans for Race Teams

Kyle Larson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier , Brian Scott

And then there are the special plans. This is the least performance-based aspect of the payout system – at least in terms of the race after which this money is awarded.

The short definition of the “special plan” system is as follows: certain racing teams earn guaranteed money just for qualifying for a race. How much money is based on how the racing team fared in prior years.

The top-tier plan is called the Victory Tour (in the past, it’s been known as the Winner’s Circle). Participants include the top ten cars from the previous year as well as two so-called “wild card” cars selected based on their performance. These teams split a significant pot of money (from tens of thousands to upwards of $100,000) in exchange for doing some extra promotional and media appearances in the days leading up to the race.

Next, there’s what’s called Car Owner Plan 1, which gives a guaranteed bonus to the top 30 teams from the previous season in terms of car owner points. The payout for this plan tends to be several thousand dollars per team. Then there’s the Car Owner Plan 1C, which encompasses the top 40 teams from the previous season who are not in the Victory Tour plan.

Finally, there’s a plan called the Car/Champion Owner program. How does a team get into this plan? NASCAR doesn’t say. How much money is at stake? Again, that’s classified.

It’s Wacky, But It Works

Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports Images

Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports Images

When you combine all of these different forms of compensation, it’s easy to see how prize money awards at the end of a given race may not be uniformly descending along with the finishing order. In theory, it’s possible for the first place finisher of a NASCAR race not to receive the highest total payout – but that has never happened in NASCAR’s history.

As unorthodox as this prize money system is, it generally doesn’t change the fact that every driver and racing team has the same goal: the perform as best as they can, and to try to win each race. After all, that’s what the fans want as well. So even if the NASCAR payout scheme is a little weird, the best drivers and teams are still going to earn the most bank during a given NASCAR season. And they’ll even get paid based on their success in the previous season as well!

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