Decade in Review: Best NASCAR drivers of the 2010s

decade in review
Getty Images
0 Comments

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?

and on Facebook

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

0 Comments

In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

0 Comments

A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”

What Cup drivers said about Talladega playoff race

0 Comments

What NASCAR Cup Series drivers said about Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, where Chase Elliott outdueled Ryan Blaney for his series-leading fifth victory this season:

Chase Elliott – Finished first: “Yeah, it was a wild last couple laps. I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. Fortunately I got just clear enough off of two to slide up in front of Erik. He gave me some great shoves. Obviously a Team Chevy partner there. Yeah, just had a good enough run to get out front, then I was able to stay far enough in front of Ryan here at the line to get it done. These things are so, so hard to win. You got to enjoy ’em. Just appreciate everybody’s effort today. Get ready to go to the Roval and try to grab another one. We’re excited for these final handful of events. Hopefully we can make it out to Phoenix and give them a run.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished second: “I was fine lining up bottom or top, honestly, working with Ross there for a while. I knew he pushed good, and I knew obviously Michael could push really good, too. So I didn’t really care where we were gonna be lining up. I got a good push there and was able to get too good of a push on the restart and got (Elliott) clear, and then he was able to lead the top lane. I had a couple chances to move up to the top and cover it, and I was just getting nervous about getting hung in the middle with (Elliott), (Erik Jones) and (Ross Chastain) lined up. I just didn’t feel comfortable going up there. I trust Chase, but not that much to where he wouldn’t have hung me out for the greater good of his group, so just chose to stay on the bottom with Michael.  We had a great chance at winning the thing, but we got disconnected in the middle of three and four. I’ll look at it probably pick at a few things I probably should have done different, wish I would have done different, but it’s easy to say that now. Overall, it was a decent day. It just stinks to be that close to our first win of the season. I think the only thing I probably would have done different is realize that (Denny Hamlin) was laying off (Michael McDowell) in the middle of three and four and faded back with them.  It just happened really quick and then I probably would have coming to the checkered – if we would have won or not, I don’t know – but got back to the bottom.”

Michael McDowell – Finished third: “It’s tough to be that close. I felt like I probaby should have backed off of (Blaney) a little bit sooner when (Hamlin) got off of me, but I was trying to make sure a Ford was gonna get to victory lane, and we kept that momentum up. I wish I could get a redo, but I’m proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports.  It’s a great day to get a top five finish, but when you’re only a car length away from winning the race, obviously, it’s disappointing. I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together, and everyone did a great job on pit road executing today and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Ross Chastain – Finished fourth: “We made a lot of moves and a lot of moves get made on us. There are 188 laps, and I’d say there’s two or three times a lap you have a decision to make. There are two that stick out to me that I had control of the middle lane and went bottom. I needed to stay middle. The cars ran better in the middle lane. It was good to work with (Blaney). Me and Ryan tried the tandem here in trucks 10 years ago. It’s wild to say we’ve been here a decade in this sport. Every point earned is better. It’s neverending. You just want more. A really good points-earned day for Daniel and myself. For this Trackhouse group to keep executing throughout these playoffs. We’re figuring this out as we go. I’m experiencing this. And I’m loving every moment as I get to do this.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished fifth: “It’s just so hard to pass, and I know you’ve all heard that. It’s just a train of two lines. You really can’t run three-wide with this car so you just have to sit behind whoever is right there in front of you and hope you can push that line a little bit forward. Hopefully, they switch lanes, and you can leap forward. That’s kind of what we’ve got right now so I feel like we executed a pretty good day. Our goal going into the day was five stage points and we got more than five the first stage and not in stage two and then tried to go and get a good finish and that’s what we did. Overall, a good day. I was able to give Chase (Elliott) a push right there and I thought about, ‘Should I go with him and force three wide?’ But I’m on the bottom and I know I’ve always got someone coming up behind me. Then I’d be in the middle and just the risk wasn’t worth going back to 15th and getting stuck in the middle. To me, this is a three-race season that we have and we’re points racing.”

Erik Jones – Finished sixth: “We had a good day today at Talladega. Our Chevy was fast all weekend. We were able to push and be pushed when needed and stay up front most of the race. I thought we had a good shot at the win and put ourselves in the right position on the final restart but unfortunately, the guys behind us had some issues and we didn’t get the push we needed on the final restart. Frustrating ending for sure, but we’ll take it and move on. I’m proud of the progress this 43 team and everyone at Petty GMS has made this season. It’s fun to drive cars like this and have a shot at the win.”

Todd Gilliland – Finished seventh: “I’m just really happy to come home with a top 10. Race car drivers are greedy. I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this. I feel like our superspeedway stuff is pretty good. It’s still scary when we qualified 34th, but to have that kind of speed in the draft is a good thing. It’s really nice to have Ford teammates out there. I worked a lot with Kevin Harvick and a lot of different Fords. I was really happy to work with a great manufacturer like that.”

Daniel Suarez – Finished eighth: “We got very lucky today man. The engine blew up with 15 laps to go, and I was barely hanging in there. On that restart, I couldn’t go and (William Byron) helped me a lot to get going, but the engine was killed. So I guess we had a little bit of luck today because it was definitely killed, and we were about to not finish that race. The vibration was so loud and the engine was holding on. I think the engine was fine, but we didn’t have any power. (Byron) was pushing me and if it wasn’t for that, I wasn’t going to be able to stay there. We are looking forward to the Roval. I feel very good about it. My goal today was to at least break even. I haven’t seen the points to know, but I think we did that. Heading to the Roval, I feel very confident that we can contend for it.”

Austin Cindrdic – Finished ninth: “Stage points are a big deal. Obviously, helping (Blaney) get a stage win was big and recovery from the wreck, damage control and driving back up through the field, I think when everybody kind of scatters to try and do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive, and I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. Call it 50/50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck, but, overall, it certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the Roval, so we’ll put our best foot forward and have some fun next week.”

Chase Briscoe – Finished 10th: “It was tame in the sense there was no wreck, but I think that was the most racy race from start to finish. We barely ever ran single-file, and these cars it’s so hard to make up ground.  It seems like track position is such a big deal and you’ve got guys pushing so hard, just trying to maintain the lane that they’re in.  I guess from my side of things it was really racy because you’re never really riding around.  You’ve got to go so hard all the time and shove the guy in front of you. We never really got single-file around the top, but I was surprised we didn’t see a wreck. I was figuring with how out of control these cars are when you get pushes from the back, especially the big ones we were having there towards the end I figured something was gonna happen. I’m glad there wasn’t anything happening, but it was kind of a surprise to me. I think this place is a little bit easier than Daytona as far as being able to kind of keep it under control, but I the teams have done a really good job of getting the cars to drive way better. I think we all learned a lot at Daytona as far as what we need to do to our race car to be able to be pushed. They’re still out of control being pushed.  I didn’t feel like I was as out of control as I have been the first three races, but they’re still a handful to drive when somebody is shoving you. I was definitely surprised we didn’t see a big wreck.”

William Byron – Finished 12th: ““I just struggled there to get to the front. When we would be up there, we would kind of maintain, but we just struggled to get towards the front, and were just kind of boxed in there at the end. So, yeah, ended up where we did, and it was unfortunate because I felt good coming in here and felt like we had a good opportunity. We just never could get the track position to stay up near the front.”

Christopher Bell – Finished 17th: “Just a very disappointing finish. Needed to score a lot of points and unfortunately, we didn’t get enough today. So we’ll have to go to the Roval and do our best. I feel OK about our chances there. I think we’ll be competitive and just have to go there and try to win.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 18th: “We were able to get some stage points, so that was good. Stage two was working out. We almost got the stage win; we fell into third, but we were OK with that. In the final stage, the pit cycle worked out well. I just got squirrely off of (turn) 2 once and lost a little bit of track position. I made one bad lane decision and pretty much ended our race. I’m bummed at myself for doing that. I thought it was going to be the right move, but it ended up being the wrong move.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 23rd: “Uneventful day. We tried to play it smart and stay out of what I thought would be the inevitable big one, but it just never happened. That’s like the first time in about 11 superspeedway races that we haven’t had a big one. But I’ve been successful being smart in these races. Eventually, it’s going to get you, but I’ll play that game more times than not.”

Joey Logano – Finished 27th: “We just wreck all the time so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck,’ and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10 assuming they would wreck because they always do. That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today, and they didn’t wreck.  We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that then I tried it, and it didn’t work.”

Harrison Burton – Finished 36th: “I guess so. I haven’t seen it yet. I know he hit me and as soon as he did I was crossed up and going side-to-side. I don’t know what to do different. I pulled up kind of conservatively to give him time to prepare and I’m not sure why. He gave me a pretty hard shot for sure, but I don’t know if it was off line, where he was when he hit me, or if I was moving while he was moving. I haven’t seen anything yet. These things happen so fast and all of a sudden you’re sideways. You know you got hit and you don’t understand what really caused it. It’s unfortunate for us.  I felt like we had a good DEX Imaging Ford Mustang. We were gonna go and try to make a move to get out front and try and control track position and all of a sudden you go sideways. It’s pretty sad. I hope it didn’t affect any of our Team Penske alliance playoff guys. I don’t think they got any damage or anything. We’ll just try and keep it going and get some momentum going in the right way.”

Ty Gibbs – Finished 37th: “Definitely just sucks to be a part of that (crash). I was working with Bubba (Wallace) there and following him. I thought we had some good teamwork going there and I let him in. We were trying to get the top rolling. I think (Harrison Burton) just got a bad push and wrecked. There was just nowhere for me to go. It definitely sucks, but it could be a blessing in disguise. We’ll just move on to the Roval and go hammer down there.”