Best of Gen 6: Celebrating the era’s most efficient passers

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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 — and 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 most efficient passers of the Gen 6 era?

Forget the total of cars passed — that’s not what we’re after and it’s a stat typically catering to those running frequently in the middle of fields, with many cars to pass, who are too often caught in inefficient side-by-side battles.

We’re seeking out efficiency, and in doing so, utilizing the surplus passing value (SPV) metric from Motorsports Analytics, which measures the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency or differential — with pit cycles and other aberrations removed — and the expected respective marks, based on average running position across a field-wide slope.

From here, we’re able to identify the drivers who most reliably earned spots within their running whereabouts during the Gen 6 era. The rankings within each capsule refer to a driver’s year-end ranking in SPV among series regulars:

Kyle Larson

Rankings: 1st (2018), 2nd (2021), 3rd (2014, 2017), 4th (2016, 2019)

Since the Californian first stepped foot into the Cup Series at age 21, passing, both in totality and efficiency, was the marquee weapon in his arsenal. His knack for high surplus values crossed different rules packages within the Gen 6 era and different teams. The latter — a shift from Chip Ganassi Racing to Hendrick Motorsports — strapped Larson into the fastest vehicle of 2021 and with it, saw an evolution from the rim-riding cowboy theatrics of his early years to a more conservative, lay-no-waste approach to securing spots on the racetrack.

Larson can overtake an opponent in one corner while sideways or can methodically uproot someone from a track’s most advantageous line. Either way, he’s an efficient mover, one who regularly exceeds statistical expectation. From 2018-2021, his expected adjusted pass differential (or xAPD) was +410; his actual adjusted differential was +1006, symbolizing a surplus 596 positions earned during green-flag conditions.

Jimmie Johnson

Rankings: 1st (2017), 2nd (2016, 2020), 3rd (2015, 2018)

While the Gen 6 era wasn’t one that completely suited Johnson and coincided with the winter of his career, one of the all-time greats was still able to capitalize on his trademark passing ability, ranking outside the top three in SPV just once from 2015-2020.

In the last three years of his career, he amassed a surplus pass differential of +378 spots. During this stretch, Hendrick’s organizational speed dipped and Johnson’s own production ability waned, placing him lower in the running order on average compared to the norm of his halcyon days. Mired in the 13th-17th place range in 2020, he still flashed an ability to overtake within his running whereabouts seemingly at will. He ranked second in SPV in his final season, trailing only Christopher Bell.

And though he went winless in his “Ally era,” Johnson was still good for a highlight in traffic against some unsuspecting competition. The seven-time champ had no issue sling-shotting past Ryan Newman and Daniel Hemric across two of Indianapolis’ tight corners in 2019:

Kevin Harvick

Rankings: 1st (2016), 2nd (2015, 2018), 4th (2014), 5th (2017)

The 2019 season — simultaneously the birth of the split-horsepower rules packages and Harvick’s descent from the average driver’s statistical peak — saw the end of Harvick’s hyper-efficient passing across long runs. Crew chief Rodney Childers played a significant role in finding spots in what became a nine-win effort in 2020, taking a big chunk of the burden off his then 44-year-old driver.

But prior to 2019, Harvick had no qualms carrying his own weight. Metaphorically deadly in both clean air and traffic, he was a reliable procurer of track position, padding his tallies with high surplus values during a remarkable run from 2015-2018.

His banner year came in 2016, in which his +4.05% SPV — the second-best single-season value of any series regular in the Gen 6 era — brought Stewart-Haas Racing a pass differential 238 positions beyond his statistical expectation.

Chase Elliott

Rankings: 1st (2021), 2nd (2017), 5th (2020), 6th (2016), 9th (2018)

Similar to Larson, Elliott was an efficient long-run passer from Day 1 in the Cup Series. In 2016, at age 20, the Georgia native ranked sixth in SPV, securing a pass differential 117 positions better than his statistical expectation.

From there, his acumen grew. He ranked second the very next year, fifth in his title-winning 2020 season and first this season, an effort worthy of 274 surplus positions. He ranked first specifically on road courses in 2021, the track type on which both of his victories came. He also ranked first on 550-horsepower tracks.

Hailing from a super late model origin, Elliott is very much the prodding, methodical mover that heavy cars tend to produce. But he seldom wastes precious time on the racing surface. He’s so efficient that starting from the tail-end of fields — something he did six times in 2021 as a result of inspection penalties or unapproved adjustments — wasn’t much of a concern for crew chief Alan Gustafson and his Hendrick Motorsports team. Elliott scored at least one point during the first stages of all six races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Rankings: 1st (2015), 3rd (2016), 5th (2014)

The statistical prime of Earnhardt’s driving career, which ranged from ages 38-42, provided just seven wins. But the majority of his good performance stemmed from elite passing marks during a three-year stretch in which he ranked first in surplus value at its apex.

That 2015 season — his age-40 effort — resulted in the second-best finishing average (11.3) of his 18-year career. It also saw Earnhardt record a +5.11% SPV, the best single-season effort of any driver during the Gen 6 era. That value allowed for an adjusted pass differential 401 positions beyond his statistical expectation, key in his finishing average (ranked sixth in the series) far exceeding the ranking of his average starting spot across 36 races (13.8, ranked 13th).

Kyle Busch

Rankings: 3rd (2019, 2021), 7th (2020)

Ironic, isn’t it? The driver most vocal about the rules package across the last three years of the Gen 6 era captured a championship during that span and ranked seventh or better in SPV in each season.

And while breaking out of side-by-side battles does seem a lot more difficult, Busch displayed a knack for such forward movement in traffic that few of his peers could duplicate. The last three years have seen the best of Busch’s passing ability, which wasn’t always present. In total, he earned Joe Gibbs Racing a pass differential +436 positions beyond expectation, including +183 in his 2019 title-winning campaign. That was also a year in which he led the series in SPV specifically when utilizing the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package that drew the majority of his ire.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Rankings: 3rd (2020), 4th (2021), 8th (2015)

Surprise! Say what you want about Stenhouse and his affinity for forcing passes; it not only works, but it’s also a highly efficient method of acquiring track position in the middle portions of the field. As a bonus, it’s entertaining to watch, as this pass on Harvick at Charlotte in 2020 demonstrates:

Since joining JTG Daugherty Racing two years ago, he secured a pair of top-five SPVs in the series and, this year, ranked in the 99th percentile for surplus passing among drivers averaging running positions 19th-29th. In total, he earned a surplus 315 positions from green-flag passing across the last two seasons.

It might not be conventional among NASCAR’s old guard and has the tendency to rub other competitors the wrong way, but Stenhouse’s recent output places him among the most reliable passers in advance of the Next Gen era.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.