February 24 marks the start of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with the 55th running of the Daytona 500. An estimated 200,000 race fans are expected to convene on the grounds of the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida this weekend.

With coolers, collapsible lawn chairs and heavily sponsored kitsch, fans will take in the excitement of “The Great American Race.” Millions more will watch the event televised on the Fox network – at least that’s what NASCAR officials are hoping.

Forbes reports thNASCARat for the last several years, NASCAR has dealt with declining numbers in viewership. NASCAR is still the second-most-popular TV sport, after the NFL, but average viewership per race has been on a six-year decline since its peak in 2005.

According to Nielsen, the ’05 season brought 8.5 million viewers per race. Last year brought a slight uptick in numbers, and the powers that be at NASCAR are trying to keep the upward momentum going.

In a sport that relies heavily on sponsorship, it’s vital to retain viewers. NASCAR knows which drivers are the most “sellable” and puts them in the spotlight as much as possible.

The sports 10 highest paid drivers include:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., $28 million

2. Jeff Gordon, $24 million

3. Tony Stewart, $22 million

4. Jimmie Johnson, $21 million

5. Carl Edwards, $15.5 million

6. Kevin Harvick, $14 million

7. Kyle Busch, $14 million

8. Danica Patrick, $12 million

9. Matt Kenseth, $11.5 million

10. Kasey Kahne, $11 million

Similar to any business, NASCAR has to strategize on how to use its best employees to their potential while simultaneously cutting costs. ESPN.com reports that the club plans to adjust its prize money from the last five spots in the field this season in an attempt to make it less profitable for teams to “start and park,” which refers to a team’s decision to run one or two laps in the start of the race and then pack the car.

When teams participate in start and parks, they reduce the revenue for the competitive drivers. It also lessens the excitement for fans, which is not profitable.

According to NASCAR.com, the current breakdown of prize money looks something like this:

  • $50,000 for winnings
  • $25,000 for a top 5
  • $10,000 for a top 10
  • $500,000 for winning the series title

The adjusted prize allocations will start in the 2013 season. The new prize adjustments state that each position from 43rd through 39th will receive $4,000 less for each position. For example, 39th will receive $4,000 less than 38th, 40th $4,000 less than 39th, etc.

The reduction in purse size for the bottom-tier racers translates into larger winnings for the more name-brand teams and their drivers. With only 36 races per season, it’s important for NASCAR to make sure it’s not just spinning its wheels.

Sources (and related articles):
http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2012/02/22/nascars-highest-paid-drivers/
http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2012/02/22/nascar-gets-back-on-track/
http://espn.go.com/racing/nascar/cup/story/_/id/8917458/nascar-reallocate-prize-money-last-five-spots-field
Nascar.com
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