Money. It's the lifeblood of professional sports. In some ways that's good, as athletes are motivated by it to provide us with maximum effort in search of more money for themselves. But there's a dark side, too, such as when athletes become overpaid and lazy, seemingly motivated only to show up and cash in. Though no athlete would ever admit to this, we have all seen it.
NASCAR does its level best to give fans the former instead of the latter. It is geared toward competition at all times, with postrace purse payouts based incrementally on performance and finishing position. There is also bonus pay given out to teams that lead at the halfway point or lead the most laps.
But NASCAR is also geared toward making money for itself and its tracks and sponsors, and that's where the distribution of money gets kind of tricky, and the lines between the aforementioned former and latter get blurred.
A NASCAR schedule is made up of 37 races. That's a lot of tickets to sell, and a lot of sponsors to please. Fans are loyal to their favorite drivers, so track owners want each one of them to show up at their race. This is where guaranteed money -- contingency dollars and other incentives -- comes in. As former competitor and current ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace once said, "If you are going to fund your team with just prize money, you are going to go broke."
Contingency dollars are represented by all the small stickers you see on the front half of the cars. Not everyone uses them all, but everyone who does gets paid. Petty Enterprises has famously shunned all beer-related contingency stickers for years, and the cars at Penske Racing get paid not to use the contingency stickers to have a "cleaner" looking race car. Examples of contingency sponsors are Budweiser (Bud Pole Award) and Raybestos Brakes (Raybestos Rookie Contenders). Payouts to the teams are different for each program and, as mentioned, teams will avoid using one if there is a conflict.
Then there are other incentives, provided by NASCAR. The Winners Circle Program awards the previous season's top winners in an effort to ensure that they come to each race in the current campaign.
So it's a delicate balance. NASCAR would like for the pay scale to mimic its points system, where the man who finishes first makes more than the man who finishes second, who makes more than the man who finishes third and so on. But it also faces the realities of satisfying track owners and sponsors, and so you rarely if ever see a purse distribution that spreads out evenly and logically.
In modern day NASCAR, you don't have to be a winner on the track to be a winner financially. You can earn millions just staying out of trouble on and off the track. But if you want to win championships and get big time endorsement deals, you better put your car in Victory Lane once in a while. And this brings up another issue regarding money distribution. Winning at Daytona can make a team's entire season. Winning at Martinsville...not so much.
Kevin Harvick is no longer competing with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for the championship, but he is second on the money list thanks to his narrow victory over Mark Martin in the Daytona 500. Harvick, who is eighth in the Chase, is just $42,153 behind Johnson, who took the money lead only last week with a lucrative victory at Texas Motor Speedway.
Gordon has been the most consistent driver with the second-most victories (six) behind Johnson's nine and has the most top 10s (28), but he is third in money. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who isn't even in the Chase, is seventh in money. No amount of contingency stickers can make up the differences there. The drivers leading the money list are there because they win races, or because they do their best in the season's biggest races.
Even so, old-time drivers must look at the payouts today and wonder "What if?" Out of the top five all-time leading race winners -- Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough -- only Waltrip makes it into the top 40 in total winnings for his career. Ol' DW is 29th but falling fast with each passing season. In fact, Darrell's brother Michael, who has won 80 fewer races and three fewer championships, ranks 17th on the all-time money list (two Daytona 500 victories didn't hurt).
As hard as that is to believe, consider this ... Kyle Petty has won more money than father Richard, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just passed his father in career earnings last year.
It sounds crazy and illogical, but there is a method to the madness. Next time you see that the 10th-place car made more money than the fifth-place guy, just know there is a story behind it, and probably a few stickers as well.