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May 14, 2024 2:36 pm

NASCAR’s in-season tourney a needed boost to dull summer slate

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It’s official: The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series will battle it out for $1 million in a five-race, 32-driver tournament in the middle of the 2025 NASCAR Cup Series season.

The three seeding races will be broadcast on Amazon Prime, while Turner Sports will televise the five races that comprise the tournament, all leading up to one driver taking home a big paycheck.

NASCAR fans immediately thought back to the days of Winston’s “No-Bull 5,” a program that followed the “Winston Million” campaign of the 1980’s. The No-Bull 5 ran from 1998 to 2002, pitting five drivers against one another in NASCAR’s five crown jewel races: The Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and the Winston 500 at Talladega. A driver who was eligible for the prize that won one of the listed races would win a $1 million bonus, as well as $1 for the lucky fan who was paired with the driver.

The No-Bull 5 might be the closest thing NASCAR has seen to the NBA’s In-Season tournament so far, which debuted during the 2023-24 season and saw considerable gains in the NBA’s TV ratings. NASCAR is hoping their in-season tournament will give the sport a much needed boost during a normally mundane summer stretch.

NASCAR’s new tournament will be straightforward — a good thing considering the complexity of the sport’s playoff system. Simply put, the driver who finishes ahead of the driver they’re paired with moves on, knocking their competitor out. While the tournament will make every spot on the racetrack that much more valuable, fans are wondering if the race for a $1 million bonus could impact the championship battle.

Sixteen playoff spots are made available in the NASCAR Cup Series each season, with a race win equaling a guaranteed spot in the postseason. Wins matter more in modern-day NASCAR than they ever have. With the ability to lock a driver into the playoffs, advance him from round to round and even win him the championship, winning races by whatever means necessary has been incentivized as much as possible by NASCAR.

It’s what makes moves like Chris Buescher’s three-wide pass at Darlington or Tyler Reddick’s failed slide job later in the same race that much more meaningful — second is still a good points day, but it doesn’t have a major impact in the grand scheme of things.

Even in a sports world where the value of $1 million seems to be decreasing by the hour, the only other NASCAR events that pay close to it are the All-Star Race, which pays an even $1 million to the winner, as well as the Daytona 500 and the Cup Series championship.

Putting an extra $1 million on the line during a stretch of the season where most title contenders have already locked up a playoff spot will only make the top drivers in the sport that much more hungry for victory lane.

However, for the “bubble” drivers — those that are hovering around the 14-20th range in points, hoping to point their way into the playoffs — no such comfort exists.

Being locked into the postseason provides an inherent advantage in modern-day NASCAR of being able to go for broke until the playoffs start. If you win the Daytona 500, you have the ability to use the next 25 weeks as a regular-season test session, experimenting with pit strategy and setups can help the top contenders better prepare for the championship push over the final 10 races of the season.

While the bubble drivers certainly want to park their cars in victory lane on Sunday afternoon, they may not have the speed under the hood to do so. While these drivers need every point they can get to try and make the postseason field, the in-season tournament could force crew chiefs and drivers to make a difficult choice — do you play it safe for a good points day that will contribute to your effort to make the playoffs, or do you take a gamble in an effort to advance through the in-season tournament?

As the tournament progresses, that decision could prove easier, as taking a chance for a $1 million payday sounds better than taking a risk just to advance through the first round. But it will certainly be interesting to see what strategies are employed when next summer comes around, and if any teams can find a way to both race for points and a payday.

The third tier of drivers — those from 20th on back in the standings that need a win to make the playoffs regardless once summer rolls around — will have even more reason to make bold moves, try a unique pit strategy, or stay out with rain approaching than ever before.

Think about a small team, such as Rick Ware Racing or Spire Motorsports, and how far $1 million could go toward improvements. To Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing, $1 million is a drop in the bucket. But for a team still looking to prove they belong in the Cup Series, $1 million could be the funds they need to take the next step.

Of course, it’s unlikely that one of those cars could get to the finals of the tournament without a wild turn of events, but modern-day NASCAR certainly isn’t shy about letting chaos unfold on a weekly basis.

We don’t yet know what races the 2025 schedule — and hence, the tournament itself — will entail, but regardless of the tracks NASCAR decides to visit over the course of the tournament, expect drivers to be driving harder than ever to try and grab that $1 million check.

–By Samuel Stubbs, Field Level Media

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