The return this week to Darlington brings about so many emotions for drivers and fans. It's history goes beyond what is actually done on the track, but more about what the fans experience in the week leading up to the actual race.
Historically this track is known for many great moments and great victories, but the wins that earned the most for a driver are talked about each time this event comes about. The Winston Million promotion was one of the biggest, and for a while the biggest, promotion NASCAR had ever put on for drivers to earn besides the championship. Four big races, and three wins in them equaled $1 million for a bonus.
In it's first year, Bill Elliott locked down his "Million Dollar Bill "nickname. It would take 12 more years and a war on the last lap before Jeff Gordon would earn the second one ever put on.
That year would be the final year the Winston Million was earned, as the following year it would be a new promotion set up to earn a million dollar reward. The No Bull 5 promotion introduced by Winston for NASCAR's 50th year would be a unique opportunity for not just one, but rather five drivers. Darlington was one of those races, being the track that already hosted two major million-dollar victories in it's vast history, it seemed appropriate to add the Southern 500 to that list.
It's a promotion that is not mentioned a lot because it only mattered at five different races in a year. But what made it the most interesting is that Darlington would be the first track to say that it awarded three $1 million victories in consecutive years.
The 1998 Pepsi Southern 500 was historic going in as Jeff Gordon had the opportunity to become the first driver to win four consecutive races at the track. It was hard enough to follow-up what was a great victory the year before, it seemed like the only thing that could make it better was following it up with yet another million dollar victory. He would do so in dominant fashion, as when he took that checkered flag it would mark yet another historic moment during a historic season. Gordon would win the most No Bull 5 bonuses of anyone, taking home a total of four.
The next year, it would be another Jeff making a sweep of Darlington, already having been through some interesting experiences during the 400-mile race earlier in the year.
Jeff Burton was coming off a year where he was stronger than ever, being the newer shoe in the Jack Roush stable, got his first two wins a year earlier. In the spring race at Darlington, he was involved in a late accident going through lapped traffic, but never came to pit road as the rain came, and with a car more suited for a short track, would take home the victory.
In his return that year, Burton would get yet another victory at the historic track, earning his first No Bull 5 bonus of his career.
What makes both of these wins interesting is that they are not discussed as million-dollar wins, just as victories. The Winston Million will always be the most famous promotion put on by the former top-tier series sponsor, even if it was only won on two occasions. But when the No Bull 5 promotion was introduced it still had that same feel of wanting that extra payday. It still included the biggest races of the year (Daytona, Charlotte, Indy, Darlington, Talladega), but now each race there was a chance that bonus would be paid out. Five different drivers each race, five different chances to cash in.
But the most interesting part is that those wins in 1998 and 1999 were still million-dollar victories, even if they were not a Winston Million.