Ranking the 11 Most Intelligent Drivers in NASCAR Today

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2013

Ranking the 11 Most Intelligent Drivers in NASCAR Today

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    A few weeks back, I put forth a list of what I believed to be the 11 most intelligent crew chiefs in NASCAR today, ranked in order.

    Reader response was fantastic—as were reader comments, which I appreciate.

    Obviously, the likely encore is a ranked list of the 11 most intelligent drivers in NASCAR today.

    But before we get to the list, let's clarify a few criteria that went into making this list.

    First, obviously, is driving talent. While I'm sure I'll get a few complaints about at least one driver on this list, remember that I'm talking about the overall package of the person.

    Second is something that at times is more important than sheer driving talent—and that's brain power. Every one of the drivers on this list was chosen for how they combine performance with cerebral ability.

    Third is off-track acumen, particularly in business or in promotion of one's self.

    You might question some of those traits first, but once you read each driver's synopsis, I think you'll realize why each of the 11 selected made this list.

11. Danica Patrick

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    I'm sure the choice of Patrick will make more than a few people scoff at her inclusion, but hear me out.

    While Patrick's performance curve has been slow to move upward since she first came to NASCAR and the Nationwide Series more than three years ago, one thing can't be denied.

    For what Patrick might lack in results thus far—although Sunday's 12th-place finish at Martinsville and her pole and eighth-place showing at Daytona have been impressive—one item is hard to deny.

    In a short time, Patrick has become an intense student of the sport, particularly with her move this season to the Sprint Cup series.

    She is a cerebral, deep-thinking driver.

    She doesn't just go out there and race, she approaches racing much like a chess match, trying to think a lap or at least a front stretch or backstretch ahead. She also tries to anticipate what her fellow drivers might do.

    Patrick has had to become a thinking man's—err, make that woman's—driver out of necessity. She's had to prove herself not only as a driver, but a female driver. She's had to deal with criticism and haters who believe she'll never make it in NASCAR.

    So she's adopted one of the oldest precepts in sports: If you can't beat 'em, at least try to out-think 'em.

10. Kevin Harvick

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    Given a few breaks through the years, Harvick would have had at least one sprint cup championship, but invariably something happens to keep him from realizing his full potential as a race car driver.

    But Harvick is more than a race car driver. For nearly a decade, he owned his own race team, giving hundreds of people good jobs and drivers such as Ron Hornaday Jr. and Elliott Sadler an opportunity behind the wheel.

    Although Harvick folded his operation more than a year ago, during its heyday, it was one of the best.

    With the combination of being an outstanding driver, businessman and former team owner, Harvick unquestionably belongs on this list.

9. Kurt Busch

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    Admittedly, the older Busch brother has made big mistakes in his career that have proved costly—and he continues to pay for them.

    But get Busch away from the track, and he's one of the most engaging, friendly and intelligent people you'd ever want to meet.

    He can talk about many subjects from his love of baseball to politics and is a fervent supporter of several charitable causes (but chooses not to toot his own horn or to get recognition for his kindness).

    You don't win a championship on sheer talent alone, nor all the races he's won, as well. While he might have had anger issues in the past, on his best day Busch can still flat outrace—and outthink—just about any driver on the circuit.

    It's just too bad he hasn't had more of those days during the last year or so.

8. Matt Kenseth

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    Kenseth is one of the quietest drivers on the Cup circuit. He's not shy, but rather just prefers to be soft-spoken.

    But there's also another side that many fans don't get to see.

    They know only of Kenseth's personality behind the wheel. Yet get him away from the track and in a social or business situation, and the mild-mannered, fun-loving guy from tiny Cambridge, Wis., shines.

    He's somewhat of a practical joker, can spin humorous tales with the best of them, and intentionally lets people think he's just quiet, when in reality, his keen wit and sense of humor has become legendary among his closest friends.

    One of those closest friends is Dale Earnhardt Jr. One might think that would make Junior and Kenseth an odd couple, but it just proves that what you see in Kenseth isn't always what you get. In reality, and away from the cameras, you get much more.

7. Jeff Burton

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    They don't call Burton NASCAR's "senator" or "governor" for nothing.

    From simple roots in South Boston, Va., he has become one of the most well-versed and broad-spoken people in the sport.

    And I'm not just talking drivers. Burton can outtalk and outperform some of the keenest minds in the business. When reporters want a guaranteed winning quote about everything from racing to politics to the general state of the world, they almost always head to Burton first.

    That kind of leads us back to why they call him "senator" and "governor." Once he retires from racing, Burton could have a bright future in politics if he chooses to go in that direction.

    Burton is the epitome of someone who picked himself up and made a name for himself, not just as a race car driver but also as a man of strong convictions, faith and opinions.

    In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that, say, maybe 20 years from now, we might call him "President Burton."

    You have to admit, it has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

6. Mark Martin

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    At 54, Mark Martin should be slowing down. But instead, he's still as strong a race car driver as he's ever been.

    What's more, his keen mind and obsession to maintain a level of physical fitness that would put a 25-year-old to shame puts Martin head and shoulders above most of his peers, not only as a racer, but more so as an astute individual.

    In a way, Martin is much like Burton.

    He's well-spoken, knows when to have fun and to be serious, can discuss many topics and has the kind of focus on everything he does with pinpoint accuracy and a constant striving to be the best he can be.

5. Kyle Busch

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    Picking the younger Busch brother—especially placing him so high on this list—will likely ruffle feathers.

    But there's no denying what KyBusch has done in a short period of time. Due to turn 28 on May 2, the younger Busch has amassed more than 100 wins in the shortest period of time in NASCAR history—25 in Sprint Cup, 54 in Nationwide and 30 in Camping World Trucks.

    While his personality can rub folks the wrong way, Busch is not only a talented driver, he's also an intelligent individual.

    For example, he finished high school in three years—and with honors, to boot—so that he could begin his racing career early.

    Since coming to NASCAR, Busch has formed his own successful race organization in the Trucks and Nationwide series. He also has interests in other businesses that his wife, Samantha, oversees.

    While some of his on-track actions might cause folks to call him less than flattering names, this Las Vegas native is no dummy.

4. Jeff Gordon

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    Although born in the San Francisco area and raised in rural Indiana, Gordon was no rural hick when he came to NASCAR.

    Not only is he now the third-winningest driver in history, Gordon has become quite the Renaissance man, as well. He's a connoisseur of fine art, wine and is an extremely successful businessman.

    In addition, Gordon has become a frequent guest on TV—don't be surprised if he gravitates in that direction once he hangs up his fire suit for good.

    Gordon also is one of the most involved athletes in the world of sports when it comes to giving back, particularly with his latest passion of helping the less fortunate in several Third World countries.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    For much of his career, Earnhardt has been a one-man walking, talking self-promotion machine—even though he doesn't intentionally go out of his way to draw attention to himself.

    It just comes naturally due to the massive fan base he has. That's also why he's been named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the last 10 years running—even with never winning even one Sprint Cup championship and earning just two wins in the last five seasons and five wins since 2006.

    While sister Kelley has overseen much of his business career, Junior has been involved.

    He's one of the busiest pitchmen in advertising products, has several business interests, including one of the hottest bars in downtown Charlotte, N.C., and has shown the business genes he got from his late father.

    Junior might come off as an "aw shucks" kind of guy in front of the cameras, but he's one of the smartest, savviest "Show Me the Money" types in NASCAR—and has the bank account to prove it.

    That's not just smart, it's very, very smart.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    Even though he's been accused of being too vanilla at times, Johnson didn't win a record five consecutive Cup championships from 2006 through 2010—not to mention 62 Cup races already in his career—by being a Jimmie come lately.

    On the contrary, Johnson is not only passionate about his sport, he's also extremely intelligent and passionate about the world around him.

    That's why he supports so many charitable causes, to try and help the less fortunate, as well as has considerable investments that continue the same kind of golden touch he's had on the track.

    With wife Chandra, herself a former model and businesswoman, the pair form perhaps the most powerful couple in the sport today with a business acumen and intelligence that picks up where racing leaves off.

    Some people are just born to be successful, and Johnson is definitely one of those in more ways than one.

1. Tony Stewart

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    How can you NOT pick Stewart No. 1 on this list?

    The man nicknamed "Smoke" might have started out as some rube, former tow truck driver from Columbus, Ind., but he's come a long way since hooking broken down and stolen cars around Indianapolis as a teen.

    During the last 20 years, Stewart has built a vast empire that includes his own Sprint Cup organization, owns several race teams in other series, owns or has an interest in several race tracks and has several hundred people in his employ.

    Much like Johnson, Stewart has a Midas-like, golden boy kind of touch.

    He knows a good deal when he sees one, surrounds himself with some of the smartest minds in the worlds of racing and business and displays one of the best attributes of a successful businessman: Hire good people and let them run with the ball rather than micromanaging.

    Stewart might not be the most intelligent when it comes to being book-smart, but he's miles above every other driver in the sport when it comes to street smarts and biz smarts.

    Oh yes, and speaking of drivers, Stewart isn't half-bad at that either, having won the Cup title three times.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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