Highlighting the 10 Most Brilliant Moves in NASCAR This Year
Championships in NASCAR are won by making good decisions.
Sure, having a talented driver and intelligent crew chief is a good start. High-quality equipment is always a plus. Good luck is certainly a factor.
There are a thousand other variables that can all come into play as well, from getting hot at the right time to staying out of trouble while your rivals make mistakes.
But the root of all of these things is making the right decisions, whether on or off the track. Somebody had to sign that driver and crew chief, and that pairing had to make the right calls on track to win races.
So who's been smart?
Here are 10 of the best moves that anybody's made in NASCAR this year:
Penske Extends Keselowski and Wolfe Through 2015
After the success of the 2011 season, Roger Penske decided to extend the contracts of both driver Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe.
2012 had previously been a contract year, but Penske re-signed the dynamic duo to work together on the No. 2 Miller Lite team through 2015.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Keselowski set a team record at Texas two weeks ago for most top-10s by a driver of the No. 2 car.
Guided by the steady hand of Wolfe, a former driver himself, their incredible teamwork has them one finish of 17th or better away from Penske's first Sprint Cup championship.
In three more years, this could be the next great NASCAR dynasty.
Michael Waltrip Racing Adds Clint Bowyer
For Clint Bowyer, the decision to leave Richard Childress Racing was not an easy one.
After all, he'd won a Nationwide Series title with the team, finished third in the championship twice, and was headed to Michael Waltrip Racing, a team that hadn't even put a car in the Chase coming into 2012.
But MWR became a bona fide contender this season, and though Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin, and Brian Vickers have all made significant contributions, Bowyer has been the biggest reason why.
Scoring three victories—including a dominant road course win at Sonoma—and making it into the Chase, the Kansas native comes into Homestead once again looking to finish third in this year's championship.
Gibbs Hires Grubb to Work with Hamlin
The lost-championship hangover was clearly apparent for Denny Hamlin during the 2011 season.
After barely missing out on the 2010 title, Hamlin only took one win last year, struggled to make the Chase, and spent half of it ranked in 12th.
But when Tony Stewart announced that he'd be dumping Darian Grubb after the season for poor regular season performance, Joe Gibbs Racing made sure to snap him up.
After all, despite Grubb's championship victory, Stewart's decision was final.
The result was a win in their second race together at Phoenix, the first seed in the Chase, and five wins on the season, tied for most of any driver so far this year.
NASCAR Runs Daytona 500 on Monday Night
For the first 50-plus years of its history, the Great American Race had been run on Sunday afternoons, occasionally spilling into twilight and the evening.
But after heavy rain this year, NASCAR and FOX worked together to reschedule the race for Monday night, broadcasting the event in prime time for the first time in its history.
The resulting ratings didn't quite top Trevor Bayne's Sunday afternoon win in 2011, but they came close.
In fact, FOX found plenty of positives in the Monday night event; not only did they score a win in Monday night ratings, Nielsen research suggested that the 36.5 million total viewers who saw at least part of the race was a new record for the network.
Brad Keselowski Tweets Updates During Daytona Red Flag
First the Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday night after rain on Sunday. Then Juan Pablo Montoya ran into a jet dryer under caution, necessitating a lengthy clean up. Bored under the red flag condition, Brad Keselowski logged into Twitter on his cell phone and sent a photo of the fire raging in turn three.
A handful of tweets later, Keselowski's following spiked by over 160,000 people, nearly tripling his number at the start of the race. Immediately he became one of the most famous athletes in social media, although he never set out to be; he kept the phone in his car to be able to contact his family after an accident.
NASCAR Parks Kurt Busch After Dover Incident
Kurt Busch's testy relationship with the media got him fired from his Penske Racing gig at the end of the 2011 season and landed him with James Finch's underfunded ride.
But it was a comment made after running a Nationwide race for brother Kyle that landed the 2004 Cup champion in hot water.
When Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News asked Busch if his probation from an incident at Darlington affected the way he was racing at Dover, Busch snapped, as seen in the video above.
NASCAR decided that Busch had violated his probation and suspended him for the next week's Cup race at Pocono.
In response, he's been of a much clearer head since, even landing a better ride at Furniture Row Racing with six races to go.
Logano Leaves Gibbs for Penske in 2013
Matt Kenseth's decision to join Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013 and beyond had been the worst-kept secret in the garage for much of the year.
That left Joey Logano in a compromising position; either stick with JGR and move to a fourth car if sponsorship could be found, or test the free-agency waters for 2013.
Armed with a win at Pocono in June, Logano chose the latter route. When A.J. Allmendinger lost his ride at Penske Racing, Logano performed well enough to convince Roger Penske to bring him on for next season.
With four top-10s in the first five races of the Chase, good things appear to be on the horizon for 2013.
In fact, this could easily be the best move of this year's silly season.
Furniture Row Upgrades with Busch and Berrier
Longtime privateer operation Furniture Row Racing began the season with Regan Smith driving its No. 78 entry and Pete Rondeau atop the pit box.
In the 55 races since the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, that combination produced a victory at Darlington in 2011, but not too much else.
In response, the team replaced Rondeau with Todd Berrier at Indianapolis, bringing them closer to engine supplier Earnhardt-Childress Racing; Berrier worked for Richard Childress from 1997-2011, scoring eight Cup wins.
Then, after Talladega, they replaced Smith with 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, hungry as ever to prove he can still race up front.
Here's another team with a bright future.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Takes Two-Week Break with Concussion Symptoms
Walking away from your job, the sport you love, and the potential to win a championship for medical reasons is the hardest thing that any athlete can do.
Most athletes choose to play through the pain, risking greater injury along the way.
But after a hard hit in a major last-lap accident at Talladega in October, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did all of those things by voluntarily removing himself from his car for two races on a doctor's advice to recuperate from a concussion.
The effects of this could—and should—be long-lasting and overarching throughout not only NASCAR, but all sports.
If one of the most popular athletes in the United States is willing to remove himself from the car in order to heal from his injuries properly, it sets a precedent of health first that athletes should respect.
It's also provoked NASCAR to consider baseline neurological testing for 2013 and beyond to better understand the significance of head injuries.
Keselowski Races Johnson Cleanly in Texas
The end of the AAA Texas 500 two weeks ago featured some incredible driving from both Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, as both drivers raced their hearts out fighting for the win.
Keselowski's blocking was incredibly aggressive, but given the opportunity to spin out the five-time champion, he chose to race Johnson cleanly.
Asked about it after the race, Keselowski told the press that he "felt like we were just going to wreck" had he been any more aggressive.
"That's just not the way you want to run a race, and not the way I want to win a championship," he added.
The good karma has paid off; he managed to avoid most of the fiasco last week at Phoenix, including Johnson's accident, bringing a 20-point lead into Homestead.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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