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Volume 22 No. 11
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Sprint to award big bonuses to drivers, fans

Sprint plans to raise the stakes on this summer’s NASCAR season by rolling out a six-race, $3 million promotion that will reward winning drivers and fans.

The Sprint Summer Showdown, as it is being referred to in communications between executives at Sprint and tracks, will give the winning drivers of ESPN’s first five NASCAR Sprint Cup races the chance to square off for a winner-takes-all prize at the Sept. 4 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. If a driver who wins one of the five races — Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan or Bristol (on ABC) — wins the Atlanta race, Sprint will pay the driver $1 million, the driver’s charity of choice $1 million, and a fan $1 million.

The promotion is the first of its kind by Sprint and rivals the $1 million it pays the winner of the Sprint All-Star Race. It is reminiscent of promotions run by NASCAR’s previous title sponsor, Winston.

Between 1985 and 1997, the Winston cigarette brand’s parent company, R.J. Reynolds, ran the Winston Million promotion, offering $1 million to any driver who won three of the sport’s four biggest races. From 1998 to 2002, it recast the promotion as the Winston No Bull 5 and offered $1 million to qualified drivers who won select races. It also gave $1 million to a fan associated with a driver through a sweepstakes.

It’s unclear how Sprint will incorporate fans into its promotion. A Sprint spokesperson said the company was planning an “exciting promotion” but declined to comment further.

The Winston Million and the Winston No Bull 5 were two of the most memorable promotions in the history of NASCAR and became ingrained in the minds of fans because they added interest to select races. They also put an emphasis on winning, which is something some fans have complained that NASCAR’s points system fails to do.

The Summer Showdown has the potential to replicate those previous efforts and become one of the bigger initiatives Sprint has undertaken, said Mike Boykin, executive vice president of sports at GMR Marketing, which consults with clients ranging from Gillette to Best Buy on NASCAR promotions. Boykin added, “It’s positive for the sport when the series sponsor puts together a major campaign like that.”

Sprint has been NASCAR’s title sponsor since its 2004 acquisition of Nextel and its inheritance of Nextel’s 10-year, $700 million lead sponsorship. In 2007, Sprint offered a $1 million prize to a fan based on the winner of the Chase for the NASCAR Cup championship, but it never has offered a promotion that rewards a driver for winning a Sprint Cup points race.

Sources said that in the past, NASCAR brass opposed paying drivers a special prize for winning select races because of concerns that it would devalue a race by creating a race within a race. At one point, Sprint considered creating a bonus that would pay drivers for winning four major races but shared NASCAR executives’ concerns that it would elevate select races above the series. Instead, Sprint decided to focus its energy on the All-Star Race.

The Summer Showdown marks a shift from that strategy. The promotion will take place during what is known generally as the Race to the Chase, the final few races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and has the potential to build some momentum before the sport’s equivalent of the playoffs begin Sept. 18.

Sprint is expected to announce the promotion at New Hampshire Motor Speedway the weekend of July 17.