Decade in Review: Best NASCAR drivers of the 2010s

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Day 2 of NBC Sports’ NASCAR Decade in Review series is here.

We continue our look back at the 2010s with the top 10 drivers of the decade, as voted on by the NBC Sports NASCAR writers.

More: 10 most memorable quotes of the 2010s

Every Cup champion from the decade is present on this list, but where did they wind up?

 

1. Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch raced a lot and won a lot in the 2010s and claimed two Cup titles along the way, becoming the first repeat champion under the elimination playoff format.

Early in 2019, Busch claimed his 200th national NASCAR series win with a victory in the Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.

Busch ended the decade with 56 Cup Series wins, 40 of which came in the 2010s. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has yet to go winless in his 15 full-time seasons in the Cup Series.

Of the drivers on this list, he and Kevin Harvick are the only Cup drivers to win in every year of the decade.

2. Jimmie Johnson

While his decade ended on a down note, going winless over the final two seasons, Johnson’s impact on the 2010s is indisputable.

He began it in 2010 be claiming his fifth consecutive Cup title and proceeded to win two more by 2016 while also winning 36 races before his drought began.

Two years after his record-tying seventh title, he and crew chief Chad Knaus split up after 17 seasons together.

Johnson will bring his full-time Cup career to an end in 2020 after 19 years while seeking his record eighth Cup title.

3. Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick surged in the 2010s, and that was before he moved from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 and proceeded to win his first Cup title.

Harvick entered the decade on a two-year winless streak and with only 11 Cup wins since his debut in 2001.

In his last four years with RCR (2010-13), Harvick topped his total from the previous nine seasons by earning 12 wins.

He didn’t slow down with SHR. With crew chief Rodney Childers, he earned five wins in his championship year. In the five years since, Harvick’s won at least two races in each season, including a career-best eight in 2018.

He’s also made the Championship 4 in five of the six years of the elimination format.

4. Martin Truex Jr.

No driver quite experienced the rebirth in the 2010s that Martin Truex Jr. did.

When the decade began, the two-time Xfinity Series champion had just one win, at Dover in 2007 as a rookie with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Truex only claimed one victory from 2010-2013, at Sonoma Raceway in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing. In the aftermath of MWR’s “Spingate” scandal in 2013, Truex found safe harbor at Furniture Row Racing. After yet another winless season in 2014, he was paired with crew chief Cole Pearn.

Over the next five years the duo produced 24 Cup wins, the 2017 Cup title and four appearances in the Championship 4 even as they moved to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2019 season.

Truex will now race in a post-Pearn era going into 2020. The crew chief surprised many by resigning and announcing he was leaving NASCAR to spend more time with his family.

5. Brad Keselowski

While he had starts and even one win in Cup before the decade started, 2010 marked Keselowski’s first full-time season on NASCAR’s top circuit.

Though he went winless in his rookie season with Team Penske, Keselowski has since claimed 29 victories driving the No. 2 Ford and can tout himself as the first driver to win a Cup title for Roger Penske (2012).

Since his title, Keselowski has finished in the top five just twice, including making the Championship 4 in 2017.

Other decade highlights include: becoming winningest active Cup driver at Talladega (five wins), earning Team Penske its first Brickyard 400 win (2018), its first win at Darlington since 1975 and becoming Team Penske’s overall winningest driver.

6. Denny Hamlin

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver ended the decade with nearly the best season of his career.

Hamlin won six times in 2019, the second-most of his career, a year after he went winless for the first time in his career. That gives him 36 Cup wins in 14 full-time seasons.

Since 2010, his wins include the Daytona 500 (twice), Southern 500 (twice), at Martinsville (three times), Talladega and the Bristol night race (twice).

The biggest knock against the 39-year-old driver is that he remains the winningest active driver on the circuit without a championship.

7. Joey Logano

Logano had a rough start to his Cup career to begin the decade with just one win in three seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Logano came into his own in the 2010s after joining Team Penske in 2013, eventually winning the 2018 Cup title.

Logano ended the decade having earned all but one of his 23 Cup wins. He’s won at least one race each year since joining Penske and has claimed victories in the Daytona 500, the Bristol night race (twice), at Martinsville and four superspeedway wins.

Logano has also reached the Championship 4 three times while also failing to make the playoffs in 2017.

8. (tie) Matt Kenseth

The first of two drivers on this list whose Cup careers came to an end before the decade did.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, claimed 21 of his 39 career wins during the decade, failing to win in two of his eight full-time seasons (including 2015 when he was suspended for two races).

Kenseth switched teams four years into the decade, going from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. That year he won a career-best seven races and finished runner-up in the standings for the second time.

Following the introduction of the elimination playoff system, his best season result was fifth in 2016.

Kenseth closed out his career in 2018 starting in 15 races for Roush. He also competed in the All-Star Race and won the pole for the event.

8. (tie) Tony Stewart

The driver known as “Smoke” tapped out of his Cup Series career after the 2016 season, taking with him three titles and 49 wins.

Only 12 of those wins came during his seven years of competition in the 2010s, but five of those victories occurred over a very important stretch in 2011.

Stewart claimed his third championship that year after he entered the playoffs winless and then won five of the 10 races in the “Chase,” including winning the season finale over Carl Edwards and earning the title via a tiebreaker.

Stewart would miss 26 races from 2013-16 – 10 races shy of a full season – due to injuries and the aftermath of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy in 2014, but he did enough to earn a spot of recognition.

10. Christopher Bell

 Bell has the distinction of being the only driver on this list who has never made a start in Cup Series.

But Bell, who turned 25 on Dec. 16, has made his mark on NASCAR in a fast and furious manner prior to his rookie season in Cup next year with Leavine Family Racing.

The Oklahoma native has competed in national series from 2015-19. In that time he’s earned 23 national series wins, one Truck Series title and has reached the Championship 4 in all four of his full-time seasons (two each in Xfinity and Trucks).

He won a rookie record seven Xfinity races in 2018 and then topped that by one this year. Where will Bell land on this list in 2029?

Now it’s your turn to vote. Who was the best driver of the 2010s?

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.