Friday, February 3, 2012

Reviving the "halfway" award


Daytona International Speedway announced Wednesday that not only will the 2012 Daytona 500 pay a record purse, but organizers are bringing back a contingency award they hope will encourage drivers to race in the front instead of hanging in the back of the pack for safety’s sake.

According to the official DIS release, “The posted awards for “The Great American Race” are $19,142,601 with the winner collecting a minimum of $1,431,325. The second, third, fourth and fifth-place finishers in the Daytona 500 will receive a minimum of $1,050,075, $759,600, $609,900 and $486,550.”

In addition to the awards for finishing order, the leader at Lap 100 will collect a $200,000 contingency award. Should that lap be run under caution, “the leader of the fifth consecutive green-flag lap following the caution will receive the award.”

The Daytona 500 Mid-Race Leader Award really isn’t anything new. Gatorade began sponsoring a similar, but less lucrative, award in 1995 (according to theautochannel.com.) The leader at halfway in every race in each series earned the $10,000 Gatorade Front Runner Award. Currently that award goes to the driver that leads the most laps during a race, and is but one of several “contingency” awards that are available to eligible drivers.

NASCAR wasn’t a part of DIS’s contingency award announcement, and has not as of press time issued any official statement, but it’s likely the sanctioning body approves.

When I spoke with Larry McReynolds prior to Daytona testing, he mentioned that NASCAR had a “hidden agenda” with the various rule changes implemented during those tests. “I was talking to Mike Helton about it the other day,” McReynolds said. “They’re trying to do away with the drivers hanging around at the back of the field until the last laps of the race.”

Larry Mac, who was Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief when the No. 3 finally went to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500, went on to share with me how the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. refused to even practice his car in the pack. The Intimidator said, “I don’t plan on being back in the pack. I’m going to be running up front so I might as well practice the car there.”

DIS intends the Daytona 500 Mid-Race Leader Award to encourage just that kind of mindset. “There is plenty of incentive for drivers to run up front the entire race but even more so at the halfway point and the last lap of the Daytona 500,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said.

Being the competitors they are, teams have always wanted to not only win the race, but also collect the “halfway bonus.” In fact, I remember my first year watching NASCAR, 1998, when Dale Jarrett led the Brickyard 400 just before the halfway point. (At the time just the fact that stock cars were allowed on the famed track at the Brickyard was a big deal!) His team focused so intently their driver leading at that critical midpoint, they left him on the track too long and he ran out of gas, going several laps down in the process. While he made up those laps and finished a respectable 16th, Jarrett lost not only the race, but also the first Winston No Bull 5 million dollar prize.

Will the Daytona 500 Mid-Race Leader Award make the 2012 running of the 500 make a difference in the way top teams run the race? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s almost certain to at least give most of the teams more incentive to take chances in the middle of the race.  To find out what effect the award has, tune in to the Daytona 500 on FOX on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. ET.

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