CUP: Best Off-Track Moves Of 2010

As always, there were some great moves on the track in 2010, leading to some exciting races and thrilling finishes.

But there also were some brilliant moves off the track, and some of them also led to exciting racing and thrilling finishes. Some of them helped improve the competition on the track while others put drivers and teams in positions to excel.

There were those that simply put the sport in the spotlight, attracting plenty of exposure for its drivers and teams. And others were big moves that could, and should, pay big dividends in the near future.

Here’s a look at the best moves off the track in 2010:

1. Boys have at it – When NASCAR announced in January that it was loosening the reins on drivers, its self-policing policy led to furious action on the track, with driver after driver mixing it up and leading to more fireworks than fans have seen in years. NASCAR officials refrained from severely penalizing drivers when they had run-ins on the track, leading to several exciting confrontations and controversies that stirred up controversy and gave fans and the media something to talk about.

2. Chip Ganassi re-signs Jamie McMurray – When Earnhardt Ganassi Racing signed McMurray to return to its organization after the 2009 season, it seemed like a desperate move for both. McMurray had been released by Roush Fenway Racing and had no ride; team co-owner Ganassi needed a driver to replace departing Martin Truex Jr., and had few viable options. This was a marriage of convenience – one that worked out in a big way. Neither could have imagined the success McMurray would have in EGR’s No. 1 car. McMurray won the two biggest races of the season – the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 at Indy – and added a career-high third win at Charlotte in October. The win at Indy gave Ganassi a sweep of the biggest American auto races – the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. Though McMurray finished a disappointing 14th in points, it was the biggest season of his career and the best for Ganassi since he ventured into NASCAR.

3. Hendrick Motorsports signs Kasey Kahne – Rick Hendrick has been a master at developing and acquiring top drivers. He pulled off another coup in April when he announced that he had signed the talented Kahne to replace Mark Martin in 2012. Though Kahne must spend 2011 at Red Bull Racing, he is expected to give Hendrick another driver capable of winning multiple races each year and contending for championships. For Kahne, the move from Richard Petty Motorsports to Hendrick looks like the biggest move of his career.

4. JR Motorsports signs Danica Patrick – Though Patrick struggled to adapt to stock cars – managing just one top-20 finish in 13 Nationwide Series races – she did what everyone expected, drawing immeasurable exposure for NASCAR and the Nationwide Series. Patrick’s every move was followed early in the season and she and the team – and its sponsors – attracted widespread media exposure even when she struggled. Patrick’s experiment with stock cars actually generated exposure for both NASCAR and the IndyCar Series as the story of her future continues to be a hot topic.

5. Hendrick makes sweeping crew chief changes – The season was barely over when Rick Hendrick made a shocking move, pairing drivers Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with different crew chiefs and crews for 2011. Though it remains to be seen how the moves will work, Hendrick needed to make a major change after all three drivers failed to win a race in 2010 and Martin and Earnhardt Jr. both missed the Chase. The moves could pay big dividends for all three drivers in 2011 and help Hendrick Motorsports continue to be the sport’s top organization.

6. From the wing to a spoiler – When NASCAR announced early in the season that it would switch from the rear wing to more traditional spoiler on its three-year-old Sprint Cup car, drivers and teams scratched their heads trying to analyze how it would affect their cars and teams. Some adapted quickly while some were slower in adjusting to the move. Some still haven’t figured it out. Still, the move was made to appease fans as much as anything and it seemed to make the racing a bit more competitive throughout one of the sport’s best seasons in years.

7. Green-White-Checkered rule – NASCAR officials announced in February that it was expanding the rule, allowing for a maximum of three green-white-checkered restarts. It immediately paid big dividends. The Daytona 500 featured a thrilling finish, sparked by two green-white-checkered restarts, and one of the most exciting races of the season, at Talladega in April, featured the maximum of three. That Talladega race featured a side-by-side finish and records for lead changes and the number of leaders. The green-white-checkered rule, coupled with double-file restarts, continued to generate excitement and close finishes.

8. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon swap pit crews – When Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus benched his pit crew in the middle of the November race at Texas, replacing it with Jeff Gordon’s crew, it seemed like a bad move, one that threatened the morale of the championship team. Instead, the move sparked Johnson to top-five finishes in the final two races of the season, leading him to his fifth straight Sprint Cup championship. And Knaus made sure at the end that both crews were part of the team’s championship celebration.

9. RCR swaps Harvick, Bowyer pit crews – When Richard Childress Racing swapped the pit crews of Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer with five races remaining in the season, the two teams had nothing to lose. Harvick was beginning to fade in the Chase and Bowyer was already eliminated thanks to a 150-point penalty. The move gave Harvick’s team the spark it needed as he finished in the top six in the final five races to climb back into contention and stayed there until the final lap of the season, finishing third in the final standings. Asked after the season what he would have changed about the Chase, Harvick said, “I would take the first five [races] back with the pit crew that I had the last five.”

10. New Nationwide Series car – NASCAR unveiled a new car that was used in four races this season and will be used exclusively in 2011. The move makes the Nationwide car a bit closer to the Cup car and gave manufacturers a bit more brand identity, something they are hoping to get back in the Cup series. • Darlington Raceway president receives Palmetto Patriot Award