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:
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.