Ranking the 10 Most Business-Savvy NASCAR Drivers

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Business-Savvy NASCAR Drivers

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    One of the key measures of an athlete is not just how he prepares before a game or race, but also how he prepares for life after his playing days are over.

    Particularly in NASCAR, being business-savvy is as important as being race-savvy. The most successful drivers aren't just racers, they're great commercial pitchmen, and perhaps more importantly, great salesmen that can help team owners attract big sponsors to fund a team's operation.

    Many of today's drivers are involved in racing operations, either being part-owner of the team they drive for, or owning various other racing enterprises such as race tracks, teams in other racing series and more.

    They also oversee their own souvenir and memorabilia trailers that travel from track to track, allowing fans to purchase various items such as caps, t-shirts, jackets and more—all emblazoned with their favorite driver's name or logo.

    Here are 10 of the most business-savvy drivers in the sport today—and how they've become that way:

10. Ken Schrader

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    To his credit, Ken Schrader began preparing for the end of his career practically from the start of it more than 40 years ago.

    He started reinvesting his winnings into his own race teams, and eventually became sole or part-owner of several short tracks, including I-55 Raceway in Pevely, Mo.; Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway, and Macon (Ill.) Speedway, of which his partners include fellow racers Kenny Wallace and Tony Stewart.

    Schrader is kind of a throwback to the barnstorming racers of the 1940s and '50s, who would literally go from track to track in search of a race—and a decent paycheck.

    Although Schrader seldom races on the Sprint Cup side of things, even at 57, he's still competing on dirt and asphalt short tracks around the country with his late model and open-wheel modified cars, as well as occasionally on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

    He also has an active souvenir business both at-track and online, and has served at times in the past as a TV analyst on SPEED and ESPN.

    As Schrader said in his book, "Gotta Race," he'll keep racing for as long as he can. "I want to spend my time racing," Schrader said. "It’s not only my job, but it’s also my hobby, I love the time I get to spend behind the wheel, and as long as I can, I’m going to race whenever I can."

9. Bobby Labonte

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    As the years began to add up after his Sprint Cup championship in 2000, Bobby Labonte began preparing for his post-race future.

    In 2007, he formed Breaking Limits, a sports and entertainment marketing and PR firm that has grown substantially since it was first established. He also owns a Red Mango yogurt and smoothie franchise in High Point, N.C., near his Trinity, N.C. home.

    Labonte also owns his own Late Model team, aptly named Bobby Labonte Racing.

    "I had an inkling to start a marketing agency and it's something I want to do for years to come," Labonte is quoted on his personal web site. "I see firsthand what we do for sponsors and the work that goes into public relations and marketing to make the program successful. We have a good group of people formed that make it happen. I'm a very small percentage of it.

    "As time goes on, I plan to be a bigger part of it. It's a natural fit for me and having an agency was going to come about at some point in time anyway. So, I figured I'd do it now and let it grow and have a strong business as years go on."

    And if all that isn't enough to keep him busy, Labonte still races the No. 47 Toyota full-time for JTG Daugherty Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

    However, that could change soon, as it was announced Saturday that Labonte will sit out up to five upcoming races and be replaced by A.J. Allmendinger. The move is seen as a potential prelude to JTG Daugherty becoming a two-car team next season, with both Labonte and Allmendinger as its drivers.

8. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch is a pretty busy man these days.

    Not only does he race full-time in the Sprint Cup Series and also does quite a bit of extracurricular racing in the Nationwide and Camping World Trucks series, he also has owned his own race team (Kyle Busch Motorsports) for a decade now.

    Starting first as a Legends Car team in 2003, it subsequently expanded into a Late Model team and then in 2010, into the Camping World Truck Series, where it is a full-time operation today.

    Like most of the other drivers mentioned in this slide show, Busch is also very active in his own charitable foundation, which is run by his wife, Samantha.

7. Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards is like a juggler, with a number of different balls in the air at any given time.

    Edwards' time as a substitute teacher and reserve sheriff's deputy prior to hitting it big in NASCAR provided a great foundation for many of the activities he's involved in today.

    In addition to being a certified airplane pilot, he owns his own record label (Back40 Records), is a pitchman for Subway restaurants, does extensive TV work as an analyst or guest commentator and still finds the time to be the second-ranked driver currently in the Sprint Cup standings.

    The first cousin of NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader, Edwards is also renowned for his strong interest in physical fitness.

6. Jeff Gordon

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    Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon is one of the busiest drivers in the business. When he's not racing, you can typically find him filming commercials, making TV show appearances and even acting in several movies and TV shows over the years. He's even hosted Saturday Night Live.

    His recent Pepsi commercial, where he's disguised as a mild-mannered used car buyer interested in a high-performance Chevrolet Camaro, went viral overnight and now has nearly 37 million views on YouTube, making it one of that site's most-watched videos ever.

    Gordon is also co-owner of the No. 48 Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson and also has an equity stake in his own No. 24 team. Along with fellow racing legend Mario Andretti, he also owns part of the Andretti and Gordon Racing School.

    He recently branched out into one of his own personal passions, fine wine, opening his own winery.

    Gordon is also very active in charitable work.

    And as if all that weren't enough, he recently put his New York City apartment up for sale at a cool $30 million asking price (he and wife Ingrid Vandebosch bought it for nearly $10 million in 2007).

5. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick is not just a successful Sprint Cup driver, he's also a success in business.

    He and wife DeLana opened Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2004 and built one of the strongest racing operations in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series before the couple decided to close up shop after the 2011 season.

    But while one window closed, another opened with the establishment of the Kevin Harvick Foundation in 2010, which has become very active in helping underprivileged youth.

    The couple also established the Kevin Harvick Athletic Scholarship at California State University in his native Bakersfield, Calif. The Harvicks also are active in Victory Junction Gang and several other charitable groups.

    DeLana had a strong background working in business operations and PR efforts in racing before she married Harvick in 2003.

    He is also a busy pitchman, particularly for primary sponsor Budweiser.

4. Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick has become a marketing and business superstar, both in and out of racing.

    As the primary spokesperson for GoDaddy.com, Patrick has starred in numerous well-publicized commercials that have made the GoDaddy brand practically a household name.

    Patrick has also utilized her racing talent and feminine side to become a marketing and business powerhouse for numerous other sponsors including Tissot watches, Peak anti-freeze, Nationwide Insurance, Coke and Coke Zero and Hot Wheels. She's a past endorser for Honda, as well (during her IndyCar days).

    And, it's a pretty safe bet that she's the only Sprint Cup driver today who endorses nail polish (OPI Nail Polish).

    While Patrick has struggled in her rookie season on the Sprint Cup circuit this year, that hasn't stopped her from becoming one of the most popular drivers in the sport. It should be interesting later this year when voting occurs for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award, which has been won in each of the last 10 seasons by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Although she still seems a bit nervous at times in interview situations, particularly those on TV, Patrick's resume includes a number of show appearances, including The Late Show with David Letterman.

    She is also a celebrity spokesperson for Drive4COPD, which raises awareness for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

3. Michael Waltrip

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    Michael Waltrip has more hats than heads to wear them on.

    Waltrip is not only a veteran Sprint Cup driver (now part-time by choice), he's also co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, is a celebrated pitchman for a number of sponsors including NAPA auto parts stores, Aaron's and Five-Hour Energy.

    In addition, the two-time Daytona 500 winner has part-ownership in other businesses including a Charlotte-area restaurant, formerly held a business interest in a motorsports web site, and also has a small interest in another Cup team, JTG Daugherty Racing.

    He even finds spare time on occasion to have previously raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and took part in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

    He's also a popular figure on NASCAR on FOX telecasts and Speed TV. In 2011, he also became a best-selling author with his ode to the late Dale Earnhardt, "In The Blink of an Eye."

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Like father, like son. Not only did Dale Earnhardt Jr. inherit racing talent from his late father, he also inherited a strong acumen in business and maximizing opportunities.

    The younger Earnhardt has been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award for the last 10 years in a vote by fans. But he's also a multi-millionaire for the huge number of endorsements he has, including Nationwide Insurance, National Guard, Diet Mountain Dew, Amp Energy, Wrangler and Chevrolet.

    And like buddies Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, Earnhardt has branched off to own or co-own several businesses including the popular Whiskey River bar in Charlotte, N.C., and a similar enterprise in Jacksonville, Fla.

    He also owns Hammerhead Entertainment, which has produced several TV and radio shows, mostly NASCAR-themed, in recent years.

    Earnhardt is also part of the ownership team of Alabama Motorsports Park and Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway.

    And following in the footsteps of team owner Rick Hendrick and NASCAR Hall of Famer and ESPN/ABC analyst Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt opened a car dealership last summer in Florida (Hendrick is one of his partners in the venture) that sells Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC vehicles.

1. Tony Stewart

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    NASCAR team co-owner (actually, make that several teams across a variety of racing platforms, including World of Outlaws cars driven by legendary Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz).

    Racetrack owner (legendary Eldora Speedway in Ohio, co-owner of Paducah International Raceway in Kentucky and Macon Speedway in Illinois).

    Public relations and marketing company owner (True Speed Communications). Races sprint cars, super late models and modifieds in his spare time. He even owns a company that manufactures radio-controlled race cars.

    Oh yes, and Tony Stewart is also a three-time Sprint Car champion who continues to excel in the world of NASCAR.

    To say Stewart has his plate full is an understatement. But the Indiana native handles all of his various ventures with aplomb—and hiring the right people to serve under him.

    It seems that no matter what type of venture Stewart gets into, it becomes a success sooner rather than later. Example: in 2008 he was given a 50 percent ownership share in what had previously been known as Haas CNC Racing, and was then renamed Stewart-Haas Racing.

    Three years later, Stewart won his third Cup championship and became the first team owner and driver to perform that feat since the late Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992.

    Stewart is also the boss for Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup teams, and he will add Kevin Harvick to the mix in 2014.

    Given how busy Stewart is with all of his enterprises, it's a wonder he even sleeps.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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