David Smith

Drivers, crew chiefs seeking statistical breakouts in 2022 (Part 2)


Continuing our look at those with legitimate opportunities for statistical growth in the new year — Part 1 was posted Thursday — here are three drivers and three crew chiefs hoping to push their careers in positive directions:

James Small

The efflorescence of Small, heading into his third season ever as a crew chief, has been a sight to behold.

Following a rocky first season in which he and Martin Truex Jr. tallied just one victory — a five-year low for the driver — and position retention rates on green-flag pit cycles of 52.38% overall and 40.91% specifically when relinquishing a top-five spot, the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team resembled championship contenders in 2021.

Truex won four times, all on prominent playoff racetracks. But for the whole of the season, Small’s strategic designs delivered better output, hitting 63.89% and 55.56% in the respective aforementioned categories. He called a near-perfect championship race, only to fall short of the win following a late caution and a pit stop 1.5 seconds slower than what was produced by Kyle Larson’s crew.

There’s still room for improvement in what his strategy is able to yield — he’s yet to reach the vaunted “60/60” mark that predecessor Cole Pearn hit four times during the Gen 6 era. But a change in race car provides Small a blank slate. This year is an opportunity for him to not only continue his growth as a crew chief, but also to see his progress manifest in a greater win total and a second legitimate chance at the title.

Ryan Blaney

Before 2021, Blaney had never won more than one race in a given season. Last year, he won three times, at Atlanta, Daytona and Michigan.

In this sense, the year was something of a breakthrough, but the 28-year-old still left some potential unfulfilled. Despite strong past performances at tracks like Martinsville and Bristol, he’s yet to win at a facility shorter than 1.5 miles. His surplus passing beyond the restart window — what used to be a discernible weakness — regressed after quantifiable growth in 2020. His pass differential last season ended in the black; however, he created 34 less positions than he did the previous year.

Could 2022 see several steps forward and none going backwards? He’s not fully formed as an all-around driver — he ranked second in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on tracks with low lap-time falloff on worn tires but just 10th on tracks with high falloff, which included Atlanta. But he’s made significant strides in virtually every stat category since entering the Cup Series on a regular basis in 2016. One of these days, all of those strides will coalesce for a banner season.

Rodney Childers

Without the car speed for which the Childers-Kevin Harvick combination is known, the crew chief had his hands full in a year with restrictions on parts development and otherwise normal methods for improvement. But the ability to do the heavy lifting when it came to procuring track position did not elude him.

Within the top-tier 7th-12th running range, Childers ranked in the 78th percentile for position retention rate during green-flag pit cycles. Against the entire series, Childers and Harvick benefited from having the fastest pit crew. This helped supplement the driver’s inability to overtake, both on short runs and long runs, where Harvick ranked as the least efficient restarter and passer within these running whereabouts.

At age 46, it’s doubtful Harvick will grow into a more reliable mover through traffic. Absent of a fast car and clean air, Childers will again have to fashion himself as an adept defender of his team’s running position and potentially turn green-flag stops into opportunities for offense.

Erik Jones

The drop from JGR to Richard Petty Motorsports appeared precipitous for Jones, who went from the 15th-fastest car in the series to the 22nd fastest and nine top-five finishes to none.

Independent of his equipment, the statistical outlay of the 25-year-old Jones suggested he still offers quite a bit. With JGR in 2020, he ranked as the fourth-most efficient passer in the series. He ranked as just the eighth-best passer among series regulars last year, though his skilled maneuvering on road courses provided a welcome surprise — his +3.07% surplus value ranked fifth among all drivers.

The acquisition of RPM by GMS Racing and a new crew chief — two-time Xfinity Series title-winner Dave Elenz — brings upside for Jones, who out-finished his yearlong speed ranking in 21 of 36 races last year.

Matt McCall

Within the running whereabouts Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 team called home, the green-flag pit strategy of McCall ranked in the 33rd percentile for both offense (weighted positional gain) and defense (position retention rate). While this was detrimental at times to Kurt Busch’s yearlong effort, it represented a vast improvement for the crew chief.

In 2020, he defended Busch’s running spot on 48.84% of green-flag pit cycles and just 9.09% when pitting specifically from the top five. Last year, those rates shifted to 62.90% and 30.77%, respectively. These rates weren’t ideal, but they were certainly much, much better.

Another significant step forward will be necessary for McCall as he moves to RFK Racing to serve as race-caller for Brad Keselowski. On paper, this is a match that should create a cutthroat competitor on big tracks. Keselowski was statistically more productive on the large tracks utilizing the 550-horsepower rules package in 2021 while all three of McCall’s Cup victories came at 1.5-mile facilities.

Ty Gibbs

After competing in 18 of 33 Xfinity Series races, Gibbs’ PEER ranked third among regulars and semi-regulars, trailing only Austin Cindric (3.606) and AJ Allmendinger (3.500).

His ability to replicate that production mark isn’t in doubt — his peripheral stats like surplus passing (+3.35%) and position retention rate on restarts (70.49%) were stellar. But the manner in which his team went about scoring results might not be replicable this year given their change in status.

As part-timers, Gibbs and crew chief Chris Gayle were able to ignore the need for stage points, certainly key in their road course performances which netted victories at Daytona and Watkins Glen. Now fully eligible for the Xfinity Series championship, those stage results can’t easily be punted.

How Gibbs and this team manage the season’s overarching goal will dictate their title-winning validity and could provide another dimension for one of the top prospects in all of NASCAR.

Drivers, crew chiefs seeking statistical breakouts in 2022 (Part 1)


The 2022 season represents opportunity.

For the NASCAR industry at large, it’s an opportunity to return to the drawing board with a new car and different methodologies to car construction, setup and, ultimately, performance. But for a dozen drivers and crew chiefs I’ve identified, 2022 is an opportunity to expand on quality statistical performance. This chance to go from good to great is a daunting step forward that, if successfully taken, could alter the careers and legacies of some the sport’s most intriguing names.

Today, we dive into Part 1, a glance at four drivers and two crew chiefs with legitimate opportunities for growth in the new year:

Cliff Daniels

Admittedly, it’s strange to ponder whether Daniels, a championship-winning crew chief in just his third year in the role, has a leap to make. Based on Kyle Larson’s history, the driver should experience little trouble adapting to a new car. But how Daniels adapts to the Next Gen vehicle will directly affect the potential for Larson’s performance in the near future.

The No. 5 team from Hendrick Motorsports produced the fastest car outright in 2021, but a blank slate should invite more parity this season. Assuming Daniels’ setups aren’t as dominant as they were during one of the best seasons of the modern Cup Series era, he’ll have a little more heavy lifting ahead of him. That means strategy, both under yellow and during green-flag pit cycles.

There’s an incentive to winning pit road battles under yellow. Larson, whose restart numbers were outwardly impressive last season, tends to launch better the closer he is to clean air, from the front row. If there’s one hitch in the reigning champ’s repertoire, it’s restarting when mired in traffic. During the playoffs, he defended his position 20 percentage points less often when restarting from the second row or deeper.

When pitting under green in 2021, Daniels proved elite, a member of the “60/60 club” in terms of position retention near the front of fields. Duplicating that kind of effort is difficult from year to year — based on recent history, it’s not a benchmark most crew chiefs can sustain — and the action and timing of pit stops will be markedly different than in past years. But if Daniels is able, he not only keeps Larson in beneficial spots, but also furthers his own burgeoning individual legacy as one of the sport’s premier race-callers.

William Byron

To properly comprehend the leap Byron made in 2021, one must not be concerned with the fact that he won just one race despite having the third-fastest car in the series. Wins aren’t straightforward in a team sport, and Byron’s team, with poor strategy output from a first-year crew chief and a pit crew that lost 106 positions under yellow, left a lot to be desired.

Byron consistently occupied space in the most treacherous running whereabouts in all of stock car racing — an average running position of seventh to 12th — and emerged an above-average restarter and passer. Mind you, the surplus positions he created in 2021 (+94.37) was a total far exceeding his net from 2020 (+17.50) when he averaged a 14th-place running spot. This means his ability to earn track position improved against stiffer competition. That’s a tremendous sign for his future.

Also a good sign is what sits ahead. The 2022 season will be Byron’s age-24 effort. On average, Cup drivers experience a sizable leap in production from age 23 to 24. If his 1.903 Production in Equal Equipment Rating from 2021 (ranked ninth in the series overall) increases by the typical amount — roughly 0.400 points — that’d be good for one or two additional wins atop last year’s total, given his car and team are at an identical competitive level.

Christopher Bell

Despite winning on the Daytona road course, 2021 was a year of regression from Bell after a dazzling rookie season.

In 2020, Bell bossed his running whereabouts, securing a series-best +2.98% surplus passing value, good for a pass differential 262 spots better than his statistical expectation. But the massive jump from 19.0 to 13.9 in average running position — a product of an equipment shift from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing — brought a more difficult competitive level. The 26-year-old struggled compared to his previous standard.

He ended the season with a -0.93% SPV, failing to earn a positive surplus on any one track type. His pass differential was over 71 positions worse than expected, made more palatable thanks to the strategy-based outlay of Adam Stevens. A second year against this brand of competition in a car theoretically more difficult to drive should suit the three-time Chili Bowl winner.

If his adroit passing from 2020 returns, it’d be a boon to the traditional stat line of a driver into which JGR and Toyota placed their faith for NASCAR’s new era.

Ben Beshore

Seemingly, Beshore’s task is simple: Provide Kyle Busch a fast race car and defend his track position on pit road. If he does both successfully, he’ll unlock the highest ceiling for potential from one of the best drivers to ever step foot in NASCAR.

The 2021 season was Beshore’s first atop a Cup Series pit box and it didn’t disappoint. He nearly clinched a spot in the 60/60 club, retaining Busch’s running position on 60.87% of all green-flag stops and 58.33% of the time specifically when relinquishing a top-five spot. His designs for Pocono’s twin bill, a strategist’s paradise, couldn’t have been more correct; Busch lost the lead on the final restart of the first race but won the next day thanks to an astute fuel mileage gambit.

A step further this season by Beshore, perhaps into the 60/60 club with a car faster than the fifth-place speed ranking established last year, could propel Busch into victory lane at a more familiar clip.

Austin Cindric

Cindric is still very much a growing racer, as his midseason fade last year suggested. He ranked first in average running position in 13 Xfinity Series races on non-drafting tracks and won just three of them. That failure to seal finishes commensurate with his running whereabouts may portend doom in his initial foray as a full-time Cup driver.

But don’t anticipate his rookie season being completely devoid of good days. In his seven-race Cup Series sample last year, he amassed a +4.48% SPV — the best of any driver with a minimum of six starts and good for a pass differential 69 positions better than his statistical expectation. That came predominately against drivers hovering near the 20th-place spot.

That lofty of a surplus won’t sustain across a full season and, unlike last year, he doesn’t have the ability to cherry-pick his schedule. But he’s not without skill, and at certain tracks, namely road courses, he’ll prove competitive enough in his running position to hint at the prospect of high finishes.

Sheldon Creed

Creed captured the Truck Series championship in 2020. But instead of his title acting as a natural pivot point to the more competitive Xfinity Series, he remained in Trucks for 2021, padding his win total by three.

In 2022, he’ll finally make the jump and the Xfinity Series will be more entertaining for it. He established himself as the best restarter in Trucks across the most recent two-year stretch, ranking first and second among series regulars each season in position retention rate. His penchant for successful restarts is ideal for the Xfinity Series, where the average caution volume was 3.5 per 100 miles in 2021.

A successful season from Creed, now 24, could spark interest from Cup teams. The former trophy truck racer is adventurous by nature and a groove hunter by nurture. He’s talented enough on his own to reignite a Richard Childress Racing program from a two-year malaise, having won just once in the last 66 races after claiming the 2019 Xfinity Series title with Tyler Reddick.

Part 2 of David Smith’s analysis will post Jan. 8.

Stat Darlings: Celebrating the best drivers of 2021


For the last few years and across different media outlets, I’ve recognized “Stat Darlings” for each NASCAR Cup Series season. These awards are doled out subjectively with objective, statistics-based reasoning.

Let’s hand out some hardware!

Best Rookie: Chase Briscoe

NASCAR’s award for Rookie of the Year isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Consider Cole Custer’s 2020 award, given to him automatically after the first 26 races solely because of his team’s playoff qualification. He was, by definition, the award’s recipient. But a cogent argument could be made that fellow rookies Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek had better statistical production across 36 races.

This year, the award and the designation coalesce with Briscoe smack in the middle of the Venn diagram.

Granted, 2021 saw a thin rookie class – Anthony Alfredo was the only other eligible newcomer. Briscoe displayed some slow-burn development that, to the surprise of some, shone brightest on 550-horsepower tracks.

A former dirt racer who scored nine Xfinity Series victories in 2020, the 27-year-old’s best days previously came at tracks of all types where the horsepower is high. This year, he proved most efficient as a passer on the larger oval tracks utilizing the 550 package, ranked 13th among series regulars in surplus passing value.

He was also, across all tracks, an above-average restarter on preferred groove attempt, with a 71.43% position retention rate – a mark besting all of last year’s rookies and Stewart-Haas Racing stable mate Aric Almirola, whose improved numbers regressed mightily during the season’s home stretch. Among drivers averaging running positions 20th-25th, Briscoe ranked first in position retention rate and second in weighted positions gained on restarts.

How Briscoe improves from this point is a considerable question, given the age at which he entered the Cup Series. He’s older than all of the drivers in the rookie class that preceded him. He’s also older than William Byron, Erik Jones and 2020 champion Chase Elliott.

The ceiling on his potential is unclear, but it’s inarguable that the competition he’ll likely see for the remainder of his career received a head start on obtaining valuable experience at stock car racing’s top level.

Most Improved: William Byron

Based on previous career benchmarks, no other driver enjoyed an improvement anywhere near Byron’s magnitude in 2021.

The 24-year-old driver saw a 0.625-point increase over his 2020 Production in Equal Equipment Rating; a nine-spot improvement to his speed ranking (measured by his average median lap rank); his position retention rate on restarts jump by over six percentage points; and his surplus passing on non-drafting ovals move from +0.16%, ranked 12th among series regulars, to +1.67%, ranked fifth.

Combined, these improvements manifested in three times as many top-five finishes (12) than what he secured last year (four).

Incredibly, it seems his improvement isn’t finished. Byron was one of five drivers competing in the Cup Series at age 23 or younger, and the only one of the five who qualified for the playoffs in three of his four seasons. On average, the age-24 season, which will come in 2022 for Byron, sees a monumental improvement in the overall production of Cup drivers.

It’s entirely possible we’ll be back here in a year’s time detailing more improvement from a driver that’s more regularly turning good statistical efforts on paper into tangible race finishes.

Best Restarter: Kyle Larson

Larson was good at everything in 2021 — more on that later — but if we were to pinpoint his best peripheral category, it’d be restarts. His 76.77% position retention rate ranked first among series regulars, over six percentage points greater than the second-best rate (Elliott at 70.56%). He also ranked first in retention (with a 77.22% rate) specifically on restarts utilizing the choose rule.

Now, it’s easier to maintain positioning when, as the leader, you have all the clean-air advantages of the front row. And Larson frequently led, restarting from the P1 spot on nearly 32% of his attempts. He also selected his positioning well; over 62% of his restarts from inside the first 14 spots originated from a preferred groove slot, putting the odds of retention in his favor.

But his attempts at mitigating loss from non-preferred groove restarts, typically a source of positional drops, was a cut above anyone else in the series. His was the only retention rate hitting the 60% mark, while his average loss of 0.41 spots served as the most team-friendly clip – enough water treaded for the runs that’d soon follow.

Best Passer: Chase Elliott

Elliott and Larson were relatively neck and neck when it came to passes on short runs and long runs. But whereas the latter saw 8% of his adjusted pass differential come from positions earned within the two-lap window for restarts, the former made traditional passes across long green-flag runs his primary wellspring for track position.

Elliott’s +2.59% surplus passing value ranked first among series regulars, as did his +446 adjusted pass differential. Despite his good positional defense on restarts, ranked second in retention rate to Larson, his seasonal net gain within the window was -1, indicating the totality of his forward movement was the result of the work being done on long runs.

This was a strength exploited by his team, who took more risks than most during the pre-race buildup. Elliott started from the tail end of fields six times in 2021 as a result of inspection penalties or unapproved adjustments, and scored at least one point during the first stages of all six races.

Best All-Around Driver: Kyle Larson

Larson won 10 times in 36 starts, a testament to both a good driver and a good team. But individually, the 29-year-old impressed thanks to rankings in key statistical categories:

  • 1st in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER)
  • 1st in PEER on 550-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER on 750-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER in races with zero late restarts
  • 1st in PEER in races with at least one late restart
  • 1st in position retention rate on all restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on choose-rule restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in adjusted pass efficiency on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on 750-horsepower ovals
  • 4th in crash avoidance

The 2021 title went to its most worthy potential recipient – never a guarantee in the playoff era.

Larson crashed just 0.19 times per race, a rate trailing only Joey Logano (0.14), Chris Buescher (0.17) and Erik Jones (0.17) among those regularly running inside the top 30. His clean driving combined with elite production, restarting and passing is a tough riddle for all others to solve and comprises a statistical profile unquestionably deserving of this designation.

Across the whole of 2021, Larson was the ultimate stat darling and the most important cog of a team with one of the greatest seasons in modern NASCAR history.

Best of Gen 6: Acknowledging the era’s best pit strategists


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.

What makes a good pit strategist?

It’s natural that we recall the moments in which perceived gambles succeeded or failed, but the entirety of a crew chief’s strategy outlay — the bigger sample size — is how we should discern whether a strategist was one of the best across the Gen 6 era.

Recorded by Motorsports Analytics, each crew chief holds a position retention rate, or more informally, the rate in which his team defended positions during green-flag pit cycles. These stops under green are vulnerable moments that feature more positional changes than caution-flag stops. They also allow the crew chief a choice on the timing of said stop within the pit window. And some, as you’ll read, are far better at timing stops than others.

While retention and positional gains are easier to obtain the deeper in the field you go — there’s less to lose, after all — crew chiefs near the front of the field aim to join what we’ll refer to as the “60/60 club,” noting 60% retention when pitting under green and 60% retention when pitting under green after relinquishing a top-five spot, where the series average is annually around 50%.

The 60/60 mark was hit 27 times in the last nine years by 15 different crew chiefs. Four of them were included among our best six of the Gen 6 era:

Cole Pearn

Pearn might’ve been the best crew chief, full stop, of the Gen 6 era. He was certainly the only four-time member of the 60/60 club, proof that his skills as a strategist were on par with his ability to conjure speed from a race car.

Each season from 2016-19, Pearn defended the running position of Martin Truex Jr. on over 60% of green-flag pit cycles while also boasting at least a 60% retention rate when relinquishing a top-five spot. Note that this four-year span began before the implementation of stages, suggesting Pearn was a stout defender of his driver’s track position regardless of points implications.

But stage racing yielded to Pearn immediate dividends for successfully protecting front-running spots. In 2017, the first year in which points were awarded for stage finishes, Truex won 18 of a possible 53 stages during the regular season. Bonus points from those stage wins helped build a 20-point buffer at the start of the playoffs, the biggest such gap of the stage racing era until Kyle Larson’s 28-point cushion this year.

Greg Ives

It’s hard enough for a crew chief like Pearn, who routinely had one of the fastest cars in the Cup Series at his disposal, to keep hold of positions near the front of the field. Lacking that elite speed hangs a higher degree of difficulty on the task. That’s what makes Ives’ performance during the Gen 6 era so impressive.

While the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief made it into the 60/60 club in each of his last three seasons calling races on behalf of Alex Bowman, his team’s year-end speed rankings from 2019-21 were 15th, ninth and 10th.

The timing and output from those green-flag pit stops were cumulatively good. But in isolation, Ives’ best efforts were common denominators in Bowman’s best results, including this season’s wins at Richmond (nine positions earned from the race’s final three green-flag pit cycles) and Pocono (6 positions earned across two cycles).

Adam Stevens

The inclusion of Stevens on this list might be tough for some Kyle Busch fans to swallow, specifically because the crew chief’s misses — like Phoenix in 2018 and last year’s race on the Roval — are instantly memorable, more so than his hits. But the two-time title-winner landed in the 60/60 club three times during the Gen 6 era, with his latest serving as a redemption for his worst season.

Joe Gibbs Racing separated Stevens and Busch after a 2020 campaign that brought just one win — coming after they’d already been eliminated from title contention — and a 43.75% retention of top-five running positions, the worst mark of Stevens’ career, coinciding with a year in which races were heavily decided by pit strategy. This season, on behalf of Christopher Bell, his output returned to normal, keeping hold of his driver’s top spots 60% of the time while proving Busch’s perennially strong pit-in/pit-out times weren’t the only factor in the team’s steady performance on green-flag pit stops.

Chad Johnston

Before the 2020 season, Johnston was one of the best position defenders on pit road, working on behalf of Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing and finishing three years — 2017-19 — at our 60/60 benchmark. The 2017 season served as his high-water effort, with an overall retention rate of 78.57% that yielded an additional 51 positions on the racetrack. Coupled with Larson’s own passing ability, this was a team deep on offense but lacking in speed.

But the 2020 season brought a host of problems to CGR’s No. 42 team, with the crew chief’s output being one of them. On behalf of Larson and Matt Kenseth, Johnston retained position on just 50% of green-flag pit cycles, losing a combined 86 positions on the track. He lost his job later that year.

Despite how his tenure ended, Johnston did prove valuable for the majority of the Gen 6 era, a feat deserving of recognition based on the totality of his strategy-based gains.

Chris Gabehart

Gabehart never made it into the 60/60 club, but in all three years as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, his was the first name on the list of those who just missed out, turning in overall and top-five position retention rates of 67% and 59% in 2019, 64% and 58% in 2020 and 59% and 57% this season.

In addition to his body of work, he delivered big moments in isolation: He earned Hamlin 11 spots on the final three green-flag pit cycles en route to a win at Texas in 2019; a two-tire call later that year in Phoenix helped clinch Hamlin a win and a Championship 4 spot; and his decision to long-pit the final stage this year at Darlington resulted in a Southern 500 victory.

Trent Owens

Owens, on behalf of Richard Petty Motorsports and then JTG Daugherty Racing, pitted under green from a top-five spot just once since 2014. But despite the lack of track position during these pit cycles, he habitually made a positive impact for drivers like Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ryan Preece.

From 2014-21, Owens’ calls under green contributed to a 442-position gain on the racetrack, the highest net of any other crew chief across the time period. From 2017-18 specifically, he earned 240 spots while submitting retention rates as high as 82.61% on behalf of Buescher and 77.47% across the two seasons combined.

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


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.