Current NASCAR Drivers Most Likely to Be Team Owners in the Future

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2014

Current NASCAR Drivers Most Likely to Be Team Owners in the Future

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    It's an irrefutable fact: The first day a driver steps into a NASCAR Sprint Cup car is also the beginning of the end of his driving career. Sure, he may go on to race 20 or 30 years, win dozens of races and even win a few championships along the way, but sooner or later he'll go from racer to former racer.

    If a driver is smart, watches his money and is inclined to want to stay in the game once his driving career is over, one of the next most logical steps is to become a team owner.

    Jeff Gordon was perhaps ahead of the curve, joining team owner Rick Hendrick more than a decade ago as co-owners of what became the six-time championship-winning No. 48 team headed by driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

    Tony Stewart also did so early, unable to pass up the opportunity in 2009 for a 50 percent equity stake in what was Haas-CNC Racing, which morphed into Stewart-Haas Racing once Stewart decided to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver-owner.

    Let's face it, a number of current Sprint Cup stars are starting to move into the twilight of their racing careers. They'd be foolish not to start thinking ahead to what their post-racing lives will be like.

    Some, like Jeff Burton, will move into the broadcast booth (he's already signed to do so when NBC starts televising NASCAR races in 2015). But there are other drivers who could potentially make the move to team ownership if they can put their money together with other investors and find some solid sponsors.

    Let's take a look at 10 current NASCAR drivers who may not be all that far away from transitioning to NASCAR team owners.

Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick has already been a successful NASCAR owner in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

    Even though he closed up shop on Kevin Harvick Inc. a couple years back to focus all of his efforts on winning a Sprint Cup championship, it's pretty clear Harvick will be a NASCAR lifer even when his driving career is over.

    He learned the ownership ropes from one of the best, Richard Childress. And given Harvick's ability to attract high-dollar sponsors as a driver (both Budweiser and Jimmy Johns moved with him from Richard Childress Racing to his new home at Stewart-Haas Racing), it's likely he'll one day become his generation's version of Childress or Junior Johnson.

    KHI may be gone for now, but it's a pretty sure bet that it will return one day—perhaps sooner than you might think.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his late father build Dale Earnhardt Inc., which ultimately led to Junior forming his own Nationwide Series team early in his career—and one that continues to exist today.

    When Junior's driving career with Hendrick Motorsports comes to an end, he'll still be one of the most marketable names in the sport. It's only natural that he makes a move into Sprint Cup team ownership at that point.

    With Hendrick in his early 60s now, it wouldn't be a total surprise to eventually see Junior buy a portion of HMS one day. Or maybe even make it a triumvirate of Hendrick, Jeff Gordon and Junior.

    Or perhaps Junior will one day buy back the rights to DEI from his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. That is particularly poignant given that the last remaining vestige of DEI is gone with the news last week that Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing is no longer (it will revert to its former name of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates).

Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch is an intelligent driver, but he's also a very astute businessman—and he's not even 30 years old yet.

    He's built up his own racing operation in the Nationwide and Trucks Series and has diversified himself into a number of businesses that further extend the Kyle Busch brand.

    Busch is one of the fiercest competitors in a race car, so it would be a natural extension for him to take that competitive spirit and one day own a Sprint Cup team.

    Of course, Busch is such a talented and versatile driver—practically his generation's version of Mark Martin—that we could easily see the younger Busch brother driving well into his 50s like Martin.

    Who knows, when team patriarch Joe Gibbs decides to retire, it wouldn't completely surprise us if son J.D. takes on Kyle as a partner to form Gibbs-Busch Racing.

Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch is also an astute student of the racing game, just like younger brother Kyle. He's learned from two of the best owners in the business, Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

    Say what you want about Busch's temper, but his intelligence, drive and fiery spirit are just the kind of attributes needed to be a successful Sprint Cup owner.

    But one thing could get in the way of Busch doing just that, however: He's also very talented in front of a microphone and could potentially have a post-racing career as a broadcaster.

    To his credit, Busch has worked hard on fixing some of the problems that affected him over the years, and he's become a better man for it. He's now at a good place once again in his racing career, and it's not going to be that long of a stretch for him to go from driver to team owner.

    He's already succeeded in the former, having won the 2004 Cup championship. And he still has a long driving career ahead of him to win more championships. But there's no reason he can't succeed as the latter and win championships that way as well. 

    And don't be surprised, either, if Busch the team owner eventually diversifies into other forms of motorsports. We can easily see him owning not only a Sprint Cup operation, but maybe even a NHRA drag racing team or perhaps a sprint car dirt track entity.

Clint Bowyer

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    Much like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer has learned a lot about team ownership driving first for Richard Childress and then Michael Waltrip.

    With his blue-collar, Midwest-based roots, Bowyer reminds us a lot of legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, who morphed from a great driving career to an even more illustrious career as a Cup team owner.

    Bowyer still likely has another 10 to 12 good years ahead of him on the Cup circuit as a driver, but don't be surprised if he starts studying the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in possible preparation to run his own Cup team one day.

    It's not a matter of if with Bowyer, but more a matter of when.

Ryan Newman

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    Even though he has a college degree in mechanical engineering, we don't see Ryan Newman opening up his own auto repair shop once he hangs up his racing firesuit.

    Rather, much like former teammate Kurt Busch, Newman has driven for two excellent team owners already in his career—Roger Penske and Tony Stewart—and he will now race in 2014 and beyond for another legendary team owner, Richard Childress.

    Newman has a knack for and knowledge about race cars that is equaled by very few of his Sprint Cup counterparts. He not only knows how things work, he is also always ready to jump in and help fix a problem, whereas many of his fellow racers may have a problem distinguishing a spark plug from a drive shaft.

    Ryan Newman Racing—it's got a nice to ring to it, wouldn't you say?

Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne has already been a team owner in the sprint car world for several years.

    Extending that reach to the Sprint Cup world once he ends his driving career would be a natural extension for the native of Washington state.

    Kahne has also driven for a number of outstanding owners in the Cup world, including Ray Evernham, Richard Petty and currently Rick Hendrick.

    While his own racing career in the Sprint Cup Series has been inconsistent at best, it wouldn't be a complete surprise to see him ultimately be a better Cup team owner one day than a Cup driver.

Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards is another Sprint Cup driver who has diversified his racing talents into the business world, taking on a definite entrepreneurial role with a number of businesses that he has an interest in, including a recording studio and record label.

    Edwards has also learned the ownership game from legendary team owner Jack Roush. And with Jack starting to get on in years himself, coupled with the loyalty Edwards has shown to him and his organization for nearly a decade, it would not surprise us to potentially see Edwards one day become part of Roush Fenway Racing as perhaps a minority team owner.

    Whether Edwards would eventually jump full-bore in to sole or majority ownership of a Cup team—especially a multi-car operation—after his own racing days are over with remains to be seen. But we think there's little doubt that team ownership of one form or fashion is definitely in Cousin Carl's future.

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski still likely has about another 20 years of racing ahead of him. But when you've driven for team owners like Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (in the Nationwide Series) and Roger Penske, it's no wonder that Keselowski already has his own Nationwide Series team and likely will one day be a Sprint Cup team owner as well.

    He reminds us a lot of Penske, Richard Childress and Hendrick in his manner and competitive nature, not just in a race car but also atop the pit box when he's watching his own team compete.

    Even with his youthful age (29), ownership will definitely likely to be in the cards for Keselowski one day on the Sprint Cup level. In fact, of all the 10 drivers we've chosen for this story, he is the one driver that we could potentially see someday mirror Tony Stewart and become the second full-time driver and team owner in the Cup Series.

Denny Hamlin

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    Last but not least on this list is Denny Hamlin. Although we can very easily see Hamlin joining good buddy Michael Jordan on a golf course one he retires from racing, racing is in his blood.

    And as can be seen with how much he missed the sport during his four weeks off recuperation from a back injury suffered last spring in a wicked wreck at Auto Club Speedway, we just can't see Hamlin leaving the racing game for the rest of his life.

    That means that if he can't race, he can certainly still own a team.

    What's more, what's not to like about being a team owner?

    He'd get to call the shots, which he hasn't always been able to do in his own racing career; he could hire workers that he felt would get the job done in the best form or fashion; and he would likely thrive on knowing that if anything went wrong, there'd be no one else to blame but himself.

    Hamlin's no broadcaster, no crew chief and certainly not a NASCAR official. But a team owner? There's definitely a future there.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski