Gordon earned a majority of his winnings later in his career when the purses for Cup Series races started to grow. But in 1997, when most purses barely reached seven figures, Gordon added an extra $1 million to his bank account by becoming the second NASCAR driver ever to win the Winston Million. He completed one of the most famous blocks in racing history on the final lap to accomplish the rare feat and earn his fat paycheck.
What was the Winston Million?
Older NASCAR fans are most likely familiar with the Winston Million, but the new generation has probably never even heard of the unique prize.
In 1985, the title sponsor of the Winston Cup Series at the time, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, implemented a new award program that offered $1 million to any driver who could win three of the four crown jewel races in NASCAR (Daytona 500, Winston 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500) in one season. Any driver who won two of the four races in a single year would receive a $100,000 prize.
Bill Elliott made history in the first year of the Winston Million. He won the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, and the Southern 500 to earn the $1 million prize in the first year of its existence.
The Winston Million remained a fixture on the Winston Cup Series for 13 years before it was discontinued in 1998. During that span, five drivers — Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Davey Allison, and Dale Jarrett — won two of the four crown jewels to earn the $100,000 prize.
But only one other driver secured the Winston Million.
Jeff Gordon entered the 1997 Southern 500 with a chance at the Winston Million
In 1996, Gordon spoiled Dale Jarrett’s Winston Million bid when he won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He returned to Darlington a year later with his own chance to win the $1 million cash prize after winning both the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
Gordon started the race in the seventh grid position, and he worked his way into the lead ahead of the final restart with 30 laps to go.
Thirty laps away from his third straight Southern 500 victory. Thirty laps away from a $1 million payday.
Gordon’s heroic block on the final lap clinched the Winston Million
With just a few laps remaining in the 1997 Southern 500, Gordon held a slim lead over Jarrett and Jeff Burton as the trio raced toward the checkered flag. Burton eventually overtook Jarrett for second place, turning the battle into a two-car race down the stretch.
It was clear Burton had a faster car than Gordon. He gained significant ground on the rainbow No. 24 Chevrolet heading into the final lap, and it seemed like a guarantee that he would eventually pass Gordon to soil his chances of winning the $1 million prize.
But as Burton made his final inside move on the last lap, Gordon completed a miraculous block that sent Burton into the Darlington gravel. Gordon held his ground at the front of the pack and cruised to the checkered flag.
The “Rainbow Warrior” only won about $130,000 for winning the race itself, but he tacked on an extra $1 million to his bank account by securing the infamous Winston Million.