Decade in Review: Best NASCAR drivers of the 2010s
Day 2 of NBC Sports’ NASCAR Decade in Review series is here.
We continue our look back at the 2010s with the top 10 drivers of the decade, as voted on by the NBC Sports NASCAR writers.
Every Cup champion from the decade is present on this list, but where did they wind up?
1. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch raced a lot and won a lot in the 2010s and claimed two Cup titles along the way, becoming the first repeat champion under the elimination playoff format.
Early in 2019, Busch claimed his 200th national NASCAR series win with a victory in the Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.
Busch ended the decade with 56 Cup Series wins, 40 of which came in the 2010s. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has yet to go winless in his 15 full-time seasons in the Cup Series.
Of the drivers on this list, he and Kevin Harvick are the only Cup drivers to win in every year of the decade.
2. Jimmie Johnson
While his decade ended on a down note, going winless over the final two seasons, Johnson’s impact on the 2010s is indisputable.
He began it in 2010 be claiming his fifth consecutive Cup title and proceeded to win two more by 2016 while also winning 36 races before his drought began.
Two years after his record-tying seventh title, he and crew chief Chad Knaus split up after 17 seasons together.
Johnson will bring his full-time Cup career to an end in 2020 after 19 years while seeking his record eighth Cup title.
3. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick surged in the 2010s, and that was before he moved from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 and proceeded to win his first Cup title.
Harvick entered the decade on a two-year winless streak and with only 11 Cup wins since his debut in 2001.
In his last four years with RCR (2010-13), Harvick topped his total from the previous nine seasons by earning 12 wins.
He didn’t slow down with SHR. With crew chief Rodney Childers, he earned five wins in his championship year. In the five years since, Harvick’s won at least two races in each season, including a career-best eight in 2018.
He’s also made the Championship 4 in five of the six years of the elimination format.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
No driver quite experienced the rebirth in the 2010s that Martin Truex Jr. did.
When the decade began, the two-time Xfinity Series champion had just one win, at Dover in 2007 as a rookie with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Truex only claimed one victory from 2010-2013, at Sonoma Raceway in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing. In the aftermath of MWR’s “Spingate” scandal in 2013, Truex found safe harbor at Furniture Row Racing. After yet another winless season in 2014, he was paired with crew chief Cole Pearn.
Over the next five years the duo produced 24 Cup wins, the 2017 Cup title and four appearances in the Championship 4 even as they moved to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2019 season.
Truex will now race in a post-Pearn era going into 2020. The crew chief surprised many by resigning and announcing he was leaving NASCAR to spend more time with his family.
5. Brad Keselowski
While he had starts and even one win in Cup before the decade started, 2010 marked Keselowski’s first full-time season on NASCAR’s top circuit.
Though he went winless in his rookie season with Team Penske, Keselowski has since claimed 29 victories driving the No. 2 Ford and can tout himself as the first driver to win a Cup title for Roger Penske (2012).
Since his title, Keselowski has finished in the top five just twice, including making the Championship 4 in 2017.
Other decade highlights include: becoming winningest active Cup driver at Talladega (five wins), earning Team Penske its first Brickyard 400 win (2018), its first win at Darlington since 1975 and becoming Team Penske’s overall winningest driver.
6. Denny Hamlin
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver ended the decade with nearly the best season of his career.
Hamlin won six times in 2019, the second-most of his career, a year after he went winless for the first time in his career. That gives him 36 Cup wins in 14 full-time seasons.
Since 2010, his wins include the Daytona 500 (twice), Southern 500 (twice), at Martinsville (three times), Talladega and the Bristol night race (twice).
The biggest knock against the 39-year-old driver is that he remains the winningest active driver on the circuit without a championship.
7. Joey Logano
Logano had a rough start to his Cup career to begin the decade with just one win in three seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Logano came into his own in the 2010s after joining Team Penske in 2013, eventually winning the 2018 Cup title.
Logano ended the decade having earned all but one of his 23 Cup wins. He’s won at least one race each year since joining Penske and has claimed victories in the Daytona 500, the Bristol night race (twice), at Martinsville and four superspeedway wins.
Logano has also reached the Championship 4 three times while also failing to make the playoffs in 2017.
8. (tie) Matt Kenseth
The first of two drivers on this list whose Cup careers came to an end before the decade did.
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, claimed 21 of his 39 career wins during the decade, failing to win in two of his eight full-time seasons (including 2015 when he was suspended for two races).
Kenseth switched teams four years into the decade, going from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. That year he won a career-best seven races and finished runner-up in the standings for the second time.
Following the introduction of the elimination playoff system, his best season result was fifth in 2016.
Kenseth closed out his career in 2018 starting in 15 races for Roush. He also competed in the All-Star Race and won the pole for the event.
8. (tie) Tony Stewart
The driver known as “Smoke” tapped out of his Cup Series career after the 2016 season, taking with him three titles and 49 wins.
Only 12 of those wins came during his seven years of competition in the 2010s, but five of those victories occurred over a very important stretch in 2011.
Stewart claimed his third championship that year after he entered the playoffs winless and then won five of the 10 races in the “Chase,” including winning the season finale over Carl Edwards and earning the title via a tiebreaker.
Stewart would miss 26 races from 2013-16 – 10 races shy of a full season - due to injuries and the aftermath of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy in 2014, but he did enough to earn a spot of recognition.
10. Christopher Bell
Bell has the distinction of being the only driver on this list who has never made a start in Cup Series.
But Bell, who turned 25 on Dec. 16, has made his mark on NASCAR in a fast and furious manner prior to his rookie season in Cup next year with Leavine Family Racing.
The Oklahoma native has competed in national series from 2015-19. In that time he’s earned 23 national series wins, one Truck Series title and has reached the Championship 4 in all four of his full-time seasons (two each in Xfinity and Trucks).
He won a rookie record seven Xfinity races in 2018 and then topped that by one this year. Where will Bell land on this list in 2029?
Now it’s your turn to vote. Who was the best driver of the 2010s?