Best of Gen 6: Celebrating the era’s most productive drivers at every age

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From the start of the 2013 season to the close of last month’s finale in Phoenix, the NASCAR Cup Series experienced the era of the Gen 6 car. With this chapter of stock car racing at its bittersweet end — with a new one beginning with the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022 — NBC Sports is spending this month looking back on the best individual performances across the last nine years.

Who were the drivers most influential to their results during the Gen 6 era? And at what ages did those productive years occur?

In order to seek out these answers, we’ll defer to the Production in Equal Equipment Rating, or PEER, utilized by Motorsports Analytics as a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution.

From here, we’re able to discern the most productive driver for each age during this specific era of Cup racing:

Ages 21-29: Larson’s rise, Logano’s redemption

Before the 10-win title season, there was a precocious version of Kyle Larson that stood out as an advanced stats darling and — largely because of the equipment and team at his disposal — nothing more. He turned in an age-21 season as a Cup Series rookie in 2014 that was not only the most productive for that age in the Gen 6 era, but also the most productive of any 21-year-old Cup driver — including the likes of Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch — of the last 30 years. He was, seemingly from Day 1, a generational talent.

Joining Larson as a celebrated prospect made good, Joey Logano turned in four industry-leading Gen 6 seasons. The most productive driver for the ages of 24-26 and 29, Logano secured 16 of his 27 career victories during these peak years, which ironically did not include his 2018 title-winning campaign. His effort that season — a 3.014 PEER — ranked as the second most productive among drivers at age 28, trailing only Larson’s giant outlay this year.

The entirety of Logano’s Gen 6 output came on behalf of Team Penske. His addition appears to be a masterstroke of a signing with the benefit of hindsight after Joe Gibbs Racing parted with a 23-year-old Logano to make way for 41-year-old Matt Kenseth. But the signs of such standout productivity were present as early as Logano’s age-20 season in 2010, which saw a 1.708 PEER, the highest rating for any 20-year-old driver across the last two decades.

Interestingly, Larson, Logano and Chase Elliott, all of whom secured best marks for ages within this range are already champions. The lone outlier is Ryan Blaney, whose 2021 season saw his highest single-year win total, his best PEER and the most well-rounded form of driving in his seven years at the Cup Series level.

Ages 30-39: Kyle Busch was a force prior to 2019’s horsepower split

Perhaps it surprises no one that Busch was one of the era’s most dominant drivers, one turning in the most productive seasons of anyone at ages 30-31 and 33-34. Prior to 2013, he submitted the best seasons of any driver at ages 23-24 in the Car of Tomorrow era, a vehicle he famously derided in its debut.

But Busch’s production skewed towards the version of the Gen 6 before NASCAR split horsepowers across different track types. All but seven of Busch’s 35 wins in a Gen 6 car occurred before the 550-horsepower, high downforce rules package went live. Like déjà vu, he’s verbalized his thoughts on the final iteration of that car, but even through his ambivalence, he was elite within his running whereabouts. He ranked as one of the seven best passers in each of the last three years in a car that threw previously efficient passers for a loop.

This era also suited Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

Hamlin’s brushes with a championship in each of the last three seasons coincided with the three most productive years of his career. This includes 2019, his age-38 campaign in which he claimed six wins and finished over 86% of his starts inside the top half of fields. His 2016 season — a year that saw five of the most productive efforts per age within the era — fared as the best of any 35-year-old driver.

More subtly, Keselowski submitted two industry-leading seasons in terms of PEER — at ages 32 and 36 — during an era where his 26 victories served as the fourth most among all drivers, winning three or more races in six different seasons. His production was not properly reflected with title contention. He made just two Championship 4 appearances, with his 2020 effort the only one coalescing with a season of high production.

Martin Truex Jr. amassed 30 wins, the third most of any driver in the era and nearly 97% of his career total. He also captured the 2017 championship in part due to the best age-38 PEER of the nine Gen 6 seasons.

Ages 40-45: Harvick’s run for the history books

No one benefited from the Gen 6 era more than Kevin Harvick, who capitalized on the vehicle during what’s typically a Cup driver’s statistical prime.

His 39 victories were the most of the era and represented 67% of his career total despite him competing in Cup for 12 years prior to the debut of the Gen 6. The best production ratings from ages 39-40 and 42-45 belong to the Stewart-Haas Racing bellwether, and while it seems there wasn’t much competition for top PEER rankings at those particular ages, there was indeed a whale for Harvick to overcome.

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion who participated in eight of the nine Gen 6 seasons, failed to turn in the best production mark for a driver at any age. But he did manage to win two championships within the time frame in question while enjoying the second-most productive seasons at ages 37 (3.528) and 39 (3.972).

One of just two repeat title-winners since 2012, Johnson’s overall legacy shouldn’t be questioned; however, Harvick, born within three months of Johnson, served as the best and most consistent statistical threat of the two during NASCAR’s Gen 6 era.

RCR reveals sponsors for Kyle Busch’s No. 8 car in 2023

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Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, 3CHI, Alsco, Lenovo and BetMGM will return to sponsor the No. 8 team in 2023, Richard Childress Racing announced Friday morning.

Kyle Busch takes over the No. 8 in 2023 after spending the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Our business relationships are paramount to our organization and we’re proud to confirm that our primary partners on the No. 8 team will be returning to RCR in 2023,” said Torrey Galida, president of RCR, in a statement. “Their commitment to our organization is a testament to our team’s collaborative approach and the value it has delivered to so many great brands.”

RCR did not detail which how many races each company will serve as primary sponsor in 2023.

3CHI was the primary sponsor on the car 14 times this past season with Tyler Reddick, including the Daytona 500 and the team’s wins at Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Lenovo was the sponsor on four races this past season, including Reddick’s win at Texas. Cheddar’s was the primary sponsor for four races this past year, including the Coca-Cola 600 and the season finale at Phoenix. Alsco served as the team’s primary sponsor in two races this past season, including the Las Vegas playoff race.

RCR also announced Friday that its deal with Cheddar’s is a multi-year agreement with the company that made its debut in the sport three years ago.

“We’ve loved partnering with RCR and the No. 8 race team since our debut into the sport three years ago, and we’re just getting started,” said John Felton, Senior Director of Marketing for Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, in a statement. “We’re excited to welcome Kyle Busch and Rowdy Nation to the Cheddar’s family, and we look forward to celebrating many wins to come.”

The 2023 Cup season opens with the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race Feb. 5 before the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.

Milestones in reach for NASCAR Cup drivers in 2023

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While the countdown to the start of the 2023 NASCAR season in February continues, here’s a look at some of the milestones Cup drivers could reach in the upcoming season:

AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger returns to drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing in 2023. He’s scheduled to make his 400th career Cup start March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, a race he nearly won last year.

Aric Almirola

Almirola is 26 laps away from leading 1,000 laps in his Cup career.

Ryan Blaney 

Blaney is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start Sept. 24 at Texas in the playoffs. Texas was the site of his last Cup win, which came in the All-Star Race in May.

Chase Briscoe

Briscoe is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Kyle Busch 

Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.

William Byron 

Byron is scheduled to make his 200th career Cup start July 16 at New Hampshire.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is a win from scoring a victory in six consecutive Cup seasons.

He is 100 laps away from leading 5,000 in his Cup career.

Justin Haley

Haley is scheduled to make his 100th career Cup start Sept. 10 at Kansas in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is two wins away from 50 career Cup wins. That would tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 13th on the all-time victory list. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.

He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.

Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.

He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is scheduled to make his 500th career Cup start June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

He is 93 laps away from 9,000 career laps led in Cup.

Kyle Larson

Larson is scheduled to make his 300th career Cup start March 19 at Atlanta.

He is four top 10s away from 150 career top 10s.

Joey Logano

Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.

Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.

He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick is nine top 10s away from 50 career top 10s.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse is scheduled to make his 400th career start in the season finale at Phoenix.

He is five top 10s away from 50 career Cup top 10s.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez is one top 10 away from 50 career top 10s in Cup.

Martin Truex Jr.

Truex is 16 starts from tying Jeff Burton for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 628. Truex is scheduled to reach that mark at June 11 at Sonoma and surpass it June 25 at Nashville.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is scheduled to make his 200th Cup start June 25 at Nashville.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

MORE: Will Kyle Busch follow footsteps of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.