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.
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
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.