Best of Gen 6: Recognizing the era’s best restarters

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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 best restarters of the Gen 6 era?

To identify the most capable movers within the two laps following each restart, we’ve sought out each driver’s position retention rate, or more informally, the rate in which they maintain their position on a restart. From here, a few names are common fixtures among the year-end rankings.

The rankings within each capsule refer to a driver’s year-end ranking in position retention rate across restarts from inside the first seven rows:

Joey Logano

Rankings: 2nd (2014, 2015), 3rd (2019), 6th (2021), 7th (2013, 2020), 9th (2016, 2017, 2018)

While there certainly were indelible Logano restarts — he successfully fended off a herd of title contestants for a 2016 victory in Phoenix that catapulted him into the Championship 4 the following week — the Connecticut native more routinely crushed with consistency. He never ranked as the best restarter in any singular season within the Gen 6 era but he was the only driver to rank inside the top 10 for position retention each year. It’s an impressive feat, a reliability that’s become his calling card.

His banner years of 2014-15 brought respective retention rates of 78.51% and 75.75%, resulting in a net gain of 111 positions. Spots he earned within those two-lap windows accounted for nearly 49% of his two-year adjusted pass differential (+228) in what served as the era’s most productive seasons for any driver aged 24 or 25 years.

Kurt Busch

Rankings: 1st (2016, 2018), 3rd (2013, 2014, 2015), 4th (2017), 8th (2020)

Busch’s reputation for restarting now precedes him, based on moments worthy of inclusion on any highlight reel and for the sheer dominance in this specific statistical category across 2013-18. During this six-year stretch, Busch twice ranked first in overall retention (2016 and 2018) and retention specifically from the non-preferred groove (2014 and 2018). His 41-position net gain out of the non-preferred groove from 2013-15 was greater than the combined net of all other drivers during the time frame.

His knack for the short runs was built during the high-horsepower days predating the choose rule. But this skill crept into the modern rules landscape last year when he again ranked first in position retention from the non-preferred groove and was one of just two full-time drivers (along with Ryan Blaney) to successfully defend position on over half of such attempts from inside the top 14.

Kevin Harvick

Rankings: 1st (2014, 2015), 4th (2013, 2016), 5th (2017), 6th (2019), 8th (2018)

It stands to reason that the driver who benefited from the Gen 6 era more than any other proved dominant on restarts. And Harvick was indeed dominant; in fact, from 2014-15 specifically, there was no better restarter.

In his title-winning season of 2014, Harvick retained his position on restarts a series-best 80.09% of the time. He bested that effort the next year with an 83.6% rate that served as the best single-season clip of the entire era. Across both seasons, his immediate return on restarts yielded 141 positions on the track, roughly 26% of a two-year adjusted pass differential (+544) that made him one of the most efficient overall passers in the same time frame.

Brad Keselowski

Rankings: 2nd (2018, 2019), 3rd (2020), 5th (2013), 7th (2014, 2021), 8th (2017)

Some of Keselowski’s individual performances on restarts may be more pronounced than his cumulative output, but that’s only because his most celebrated efforts produced an impressive outlay. Across the entire era, the three biggest gains on any restart all belong to Keselowski: He earned 18 spots on a single restart in 2017 at Kansas, 17 on a single bid from Las Vegas this year and 17 in one restart window at Talladega four years ago.

But he paired sensibility with his sizzle, ranking inside the top 10 for retention in seven of the nine Gen 6 seasons, including 2021. He ranked second — his high point — across 2018-19, a span comprised of two radically different rules packages.

Martin Truex Jr.

Rankings: 1st (2019, 2020), 2nd (2017), 3rd (2021), 6th (2015, 2016), 7th (2018)

Truex’s short-run prowess is elite, more so than his overall passing acumen beyond the restart window. His retention rate on restarts ranked seventh or better in each of the last seven seasons while his ability to overtake — as he did earlier this season at Phoenix in a devilish dive past Logano — proved useful in several wins for both Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

His years atop the list were 2019-20, in which he earned a nine-position net gain, the most of any driver across the two seasons. He also showcased a defensive ability that resulted in dependable loss mitigation: His 0.62-position net loss per non-preferred groove restart in 2020 ranked first in the series, 0.2 spots per attempt better — and worth an additional position every five restarts — than the next-best driver.

Kyle Larson

Rankings: 1st (2017, 2021), 4th (2019), 5th (2016, 2014), 6th (2018)

It’s probably not a shock that the 2021 title-winner is included here but respect the trajectory: Larson was a top-five restarter in his rookie year.

He’s only improved with age, leading the Cup Series in retention rate in both 2017 and 2021. This year, he held steady on restarts 76.77% of the time when launching from inside the top 14, the high-water mark of the low-horsepower years. His net loss on non-preferred groove attempts this season was a mere 0.11 positions on non-drafting tracks. He was virtually untouchable on short runs, especially when restarting from the front row, where he retained position over 85% of the time.

Restarts tend not to favor the young — at age 29, Larson is the youngest driver on this list — so the fact that he’s been an efficient short-run traffic navigator since his very first Cup Series start makes for another accolade among his many accomplishments.