NASCAR Cup Series
By Pat DeCola
Published: 10 Jan, 2023
15 Minute Read
The 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway remains one of the most memorable, cherished races in NASCAR history.
A pair of 37-year-olds each vying for the championship split the big trophies handed out that day – Bill Elliott for the race win, and counterpart Alan Kulwicki finishing second in the race but narrowly claiming the season championship over ‘Awesome Bill.’
Another pair, on opposite ends of the spectrum, saw perhaps the most legendary career the sport’s ever seen wrap up as another one of brilliance was just beginning. A 50-plus-year-old Richard Petty, with 200 Cup Series wins, stepped out of the famed No. 43 after that race. Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, hopped into that No. 24 car he made famous over the next two decades for the first time as a fresh-faced 21-year-old talent for owner Rick Hendrick, himself just 43 at the time.
There perhaps may be no more pivotal race in NASCAR lore, fully displaying the unique atmosphere of the sport of stock car racing where teenagers can compete against drivers theoretically old enough to be their grandfathers – and on equal footing.
Age? Well, in the case of auto racing, it turns out that sometimes it is just a number, but it got us thinking … if we had to pick the absolute best active, full-time drivers for the 2023 season for every age across all national series, who would they be?
Here are our 2023 selections for the best active drivers from 17 to 47.
Note: For simplicity, every age is as of Jan. 1, 2023.
17: Taylor Gray, No. 17 TRICON Garage Toyota (Trucks): Gray enters the fold for the newly re-branded team formerly known as David Gilliland Racing – both an organization on the rise and the kind of young talent to build around. Our youngest driver on this list already has about half a season’s worth of series starts – and some impressive short-track runs among them – before he’s even old enough to vote. The 2022 ARCA Menards East runner-up should be an instant contender this year in his first full-time national series campaign.
18: Sammy Smith, No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (NXS): The two-time ARCA East champ and winner of six ARCA Menards Series races inherits a full-time stake in his 2022 ride – one of the premier entries in the Xfinity Series – and could make an immediate impact. He’ll look to build off a strong showing in his initial series starts that included an impressive third-place run at Watkins Glen International.
19: Sam Mayer, No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet (NXS): He’ll still be a teenager come summer, but Mayer will have essentially two full seasons of Xfinity Series competition under his belt at that point, and we’ve already seen a tremendous level of talent from him in both his current jaunt and the Craftsman Truck Series. Though he was held winless in 2022, the 2020 ARCA East champ – who won five races and notched a runner-up in six races that year – nearly averaged a top 10 in 33 NXS starts en route to a playoff appearance and seventh-place series finish among stiff competition in ’22.
Honorable mention: Carson Hocevar, No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet (Trucks)
20: Ty Gibbs, No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Cup): The reigning Xfinity Series champion enters the Cup Series fold full time in 2023 after unexpectedly being called upon to make 15 spot starts for an injured Kurt Busch and 23XI Racing at just age 19 last year. Gibbs netted just one top 10 in that span. Still, the experience there will prove immeasurable. Otherwise, he would have replaced a particular two-time Cup Series champion with no prior Cup starts. His impromptu Sunday work clearly didn’t affect his Saturdays on the Xfinity side, either, as Gibbs’ seven wins were just one shy of the series lead – but he was the one holding the championship trophy when all was said and done.
Honorable mentions: Rajah Caruth, No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet (Trucks); Chandler Smith, No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (NXS)
21: Nick Sanchez, No. 2 Rev Racing Chevrolet (Trucks): Sanchez got his feet wet in the Xfinity Series in 2022 with eight starts highlighted by a seventh-place run at Martinsville, but his racing skills were really on display in the ARCA Menards Series where he rode to three wins and the championship. He now benefits from working with some of the most prolific names in the series through an alliance Rev has with Kyle Busch Motorsports and longtime KBM crew chief Danny Stockman – along with the former No. 18 crew – set to call the shots for his rookie season.
22: Harrison Burton, No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford (Cup): Given his quick rise through the ranks to drive for one of NASCAR’s most prestigious organizations, it’s easy to forget Burton is still a fresh 22-year-old that has shown signs of strength at a variety of tracks since debuting in the Truck Series at just 15 years old in 2016. The pedigree is obviously there, and his development is poised to continue. After all, it doesn’t exactly hurt to have a 21-time Cup winner that you call ‘Dad’ to get advice from.
Honorable mention: Todd Gilliland, No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford (Cup)
23: Zane Smith, No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford (Trucks): The 23-year-old honorable mention here has a tremendously bright future of his own – and a Cup win already – but Smith has been the man to beat in the Truck Series each of the past three years. He was beaten the first of those two, finishing runner-up in the standings in 2020 and ’21 before sealing the deal on his first title this past season in his best year yet. Smith appears to be on a meteoric rise and only getting better, a trend that will likely be accelerated by a handful of planned Cup starts in ’23 alongside his title defense.
Honorable mention: Justin Haley, No. 31 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (Cup)
24: Austin Cindric, No. 2 Team Penske Ford (Cup): The choice between Cindric and Gragson here was agonizing, given Gragson is coming off eight wins and a near title as he moves up to Cup to race for Petty GMS. Cindric, however, did capture an Xfinity title (2020) and appeared headed toward a repeat in ’21 before Daniel Hemric scored the upset at Phoenix. He was close to making the Round of 8 last year in his rookie Cup season. Then there’s that whole other thing about, you know, winning the Daytona 500 … in his eighth career start. That said, Gragson ran half the Cup season last year and could be a dark horse playoff contender this year himself. A true toss-up.
Honorable mention: Noah Gragson, No. 42 Petty GMS Chevrolet (Cup)
25: William Byron, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Cup): I’m sure there were some reservations when Rick Hendrick announced a 19-year-old iRacing phenom would be not only moving up to the Cup Series, but taking over the No. 24 made famous by Jeff Gordon. But there’s a reason Hendrick is the most decorated car owner in history – and boy, has Byron made him only look like more of a genius. There’s no doubt his 2018 rookie season – just four top 10s – was challenging, but the growth has been quick and obvious since, culminating in an electric 2022 that nearly saw him in the Championship 4 and stretches where he looked like he’d be the man to beat at Phoenix. At just 25, Byron legitimately could have 20-plus years of contending for championships ahead of him. It’s a big claim, but it’s not out of the question that in two decades, Gordon isn’t the Hendrick driver with the most titles behind the wheel of the No. 24.
26: Tyler Reddick, No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota (Cup): Reddick could retire tomorrow, and at 26, he still would’ve had one of the more interesting careers out there, with more storylines to it than you’d believe. One thing, however, has been evident and remained true throughout the team changes, lame-duck championships, Zoom meeting surprises and interestingly timed announcements – dude’s just fast. Reddick has won big at all three national series stops and will now complete the manufacturer trifecta as well, moving over to 23XI Racing to drive a Toyota … for a team co-owned by Michael Jordan. Seriously, storybook stuff. And when Reddick’s final chapter is written well down the line, expect there to be some more zany anecdotes along the way. And probably a few championships.
Honorable mention: Erik Jones, No. 43 Petty GMS Chevrolet (Cup)
27: Chase Elliott, No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Cup): NASCAR’s Most Popular driver most certainly inherited a lot of that fandom from his father Bill, a previous longtime holder of the award in his racing days. Boy, has he backed it up with his performance on the track, though. Fans knew from his first-ever national series win – a wild romp north of the border at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park – that there was something different here, and Elliott has only continued to dominate as he climbed the ladder and was a bona fide Cup champion by age 24. It’s hard to see how he’s not going to be a perennial Championship 4 contender for the next two decades; he’s on a streak of three in a row as it is and still getting better.
28: Christopher Bell, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Cup): We’ve known for a while how good Bell is behind the wheel and how talented he is on all kinds of tracks – dirt, pavement or otherwise. After a winless rookie Cup season and an improved but not exceptional sophomore campaign, Bell reminded everyone in a big way in 2022 that he’s the same driver who nabbed 21 wins in a three-year span in Xfinity and Truck competition from 2017-19 and forced JGR’s hand to part ways with a younger and homegrown Erik Jones to make room for him. No other driver at the moment can claim to be more clutch behind the wheel than Bell after the Oklahoma native went back-to-back in must-win elimination races, winning both in spectacular fashion with everything on the line to make his first Championship 4.
Honorable mention: Chase Briscoe, No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Cup)
29: Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Team Penske Ford (Cup): No, Blaney didn’t win in 2022, while the other two honorable mentions here did, but he has seven victories in his career and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in points since his rookie season in 2016. All the pieces may not have fit together fully yet to make a true championship run, but it’s clear from how fast Blaney runs year after year. Would you be at all surprised to see things break a little more favorably in his direction in 2023 and Blaney finish with four or five wins and a Championship 4 appearance? No, no you would not.
Honorable mentions: Alex Bowman, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Cup); Bubba Wallace, No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota (Cup)
30: Kyle Larson, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Cup): It’ll be super interesting to see if either Chastain or Suárez could put Larson on the hot seat here by season’s end – a testament more to the quick-rising star power of that duo and Trackhouse Racing at large than any knock on Larson. One could argue the California native is the overall best driver on this list. The first year of the Next Gen saw him take a slight step back from his ’21 dominance, but with a year’s worth of learning under his belt, expect him to come out in full force in ’23. He’s got to win title No. 2 first, but Larson feels like he has the best chance of anybody to at some point become the first driver to go back-to-back in the playoff elimination-format era. He has shown the ability to be Jimmie Johnson-level dominant.
Honorable mentions: Ross Chastain, No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (Cup), Daniel Suárez, No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (Cup)
31: Daniel Hemric, No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (NXS): Hemric’s another driver who has had one of the more interesting career paths. The North Carolinian wound his way through the Xfinity and Truck ranks with some strong teams and showings, followed by a one-year stint with RCR in the car Kyle Busch will be piloting this season and then eventually settling back down at the Xfinity level – where he finally won his first-ever NASCAR race in the 2021 Phoenix finale to win the whole dang championship. He saw a drop-off in performance in his first year at Kaulig last season, but look for him to really round into form in his 30s as he appears to have found a consistent home. This season will mark the first time he’s remained with an organization year-to-year since his RCR tenure wrapped after 2019.
Honorable mention: Corey LaJoie, No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet (Cup)
32: Joey Logano, No. 22 Team Penske Ford (Cup): There are clearly a plethora of talented 32-year-olds racing today. After all, this is roughly when a driver can be considered to be at or approaching his peak, where there’s no shortage of experience and also no signs of slowing down with advanced age. It’s the true sweet spot for a driver – and Logano very much showed that he and his No. 22 group were the class of the Championship 4 across the board last fall in Phoenix. Had we done this list in previous years, the two-time champion honestly might’ve picked up the distinction every season since debuting in the sport at 18 years old in 2008. Since then, he’s compiled 62 national series wins, two titles at the highest level, a Daytona 500 victory and plenty more accomplishments. When he hangs up the fire suit, the Connecticut native will certainly be considered one of the best drivers of the modern era and likely one of the best ever.
Honorable mentions: Austin Dillon, No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Cup); Ryan Preece, No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Cup); Josh Berry, No.8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet (NXS)
33: Landon Cassill, No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (NXS): Cassill has yet to land his first career national series win across more than 500 national series starts, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many, if any, out there who don’t respect the grind. It’s starting to pay dividends as Cassill has picked up a boatload of valuable experience and insight running that many races and nearly broke through to Victory Lane in 2022. Five of his eight career national series top fives came last year alone, highlighted by a P2 finish at Martinsville last April.
35: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet (Cup): It honestly doesn’t feel like that long ago that Stenhouse was one of NASCAR’s hottest prospects, winning back-to-back Xfinity Series titles for Jack Roush in his early 20s, but time is weird, and here we are. He’s probably never quite been in an A-list, top-tier Cup ride, but he has proven more than capable of being a mainstay in the series, becoming a force on superspeedways and short tracks and a playoff appearance during a two-win 2017 season.
36: Justin Allgaier, No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet (NXS): It’s almost more impressive that Allgaier remains without a national series title, given he has literally never finished worse than seventh in the Xfinity Series standings across 12 full-time seasons and owns five Championship 4 appearances. It’s just that one hump he’s yet to hurdle because otherwise, he’s looked like championship material for the better part of a decade and a half (his first full-time NXS season was in 2009, with a pair of full-time Cup campaigns in 2014-15 breaking up his current stint). The 19-time series winner will once again vie for a title in 2023 with his longtime seat at JR Motorsports, and this year marks as good a shot as any to finally get it done.
37: Kyle Busch, No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Cup): Arguably the easiest selection here, Busch, like his pal Logano, probably could’ve made this list for his age for roughly the past two decades – he’s been that talented, for that long. Along with his rival and former teammate, he’s just one of two active, multi-time Cup champions. Truth be told, it’s surprising to see him at age 37, with literally the most wins in NASCAR history and just two titles to his name. He’ll enter a new era of his career this year with RCR, an organization with a history of winning championships, plural, with a brash driver who had the ability to seemingly win at will.
38: Brad Keselowski, No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing Ford (Cup): A two-time national series champion – and now, a two-time national series team owner, as well – Keselowski is entering that grizzled veteran stage of his career. It’s easy to look at the longtime Team Penske driver’s 2022 stats – no wins, one top five and just six top 10s – in a vacuum and think the writing is on the wall, but there’s obviously so much more to that story. This past season was his first in the RFK Racing fold (the ‘K’ stands for Keselowski) as he entered a new foray of Cup Series driver/owner. The team showed vast improvement by season’s end, and Keselowski should be viewed as playoff-capable and then some for 2023. Do we really think he’s dropped off that much from his Championship 4 runner-up in 2020? No way.
Honorable mentions: Aric Almirola, No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Cup); Michael McDowell, No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford (Cup)
39: Stewart Friesen, No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota (Trucks): Friesen is another on this list with a unique path to NASCAR stardom, as the dirt stalwart made exactly zero NASCAR starts before six races in his age 32 season in 2016 and working his way up to his first full-time campaign two years later. His three series wins – Eldora, Phoenix and Texas – could not have come at three more dissimilar tracks, and it’s fair to wonder what kind of career he would’ve had if he’d wound up in this discipline earlier. For now, he’s bootstrapping his way to being a perennial title contender in the Truck Series, and it’s quite possible he winds up with a championship this year or in the coming few.
41: AJ Allmendinger, No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (Cup): It’s wild to think that Allmendinger, already in his 40s with 394 career Cup starts and 13 Xfinity wins since 2019 alone, could be looking at his best decade in the sport still ahead of him. Allmendinger has pretty much always been viewed as the most lethal road racer in NASCAR, but he’s grown into one of the most well-rounded competitors who can wheel just about anything to Victory Lane these days. The refreshed and reinvigorated California native re-enters the Cup fold full-time in 2023 for perhaps his best shot at a title yet, and it’s entirely conceivable he wins multiple races. It honestly might be a disappointing result for him and the team if he manages to miss this year’s playoffs, despite one of the most competitive Cup fields in recent memory.
42: Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Cup): How about this one, eh? Both 42-year-olds considered here are bona fide future Hall of Famers, drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and are perennial title contenders – but only one of them has a championship, and he’s our honorable mention. Had one of Truex’s three Championship 4 runner-ups in 2018, ’19 and ’21 gone differently, he probably would’ve been the pick here, but they didn’t – and Hamlin has compiled a whopping 17 of his 48 career wins in the past four seasons alone. When Hamlin’s on these days, he’s near unbeatable – in fact, the only one to beat him typically is himself on pit road – but it’s clear he’s at the absolute top of his game this past half-decade. Considering he’s also been in the process of launching, building and managing an entirely new Cup team the past few years as his moonlighting gig, it becomes all the more impressive what he’s been able to accomplish in his 30s and early 40s.
Honorable mention: Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Cup)
46: Matt Crafton, No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford (Trucks): Crafton is everything you’d want in a 46-year-old Truck Series veteran – occasionally ornery, doesn’t take crap from anybody, is happy to teach a lesson or two … and can still get the job done on the race track. Last year saw a bit of a dip in performance, but the team is making the switch back to Ford for this upcoming campaign, and Crafton’s most recent of his three championships (2018) came while sporting the blue oval.
47: Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Cup): And here, we’ve arrived at the oldest driver on this list – yet still one of the best. Harvick’s list of contributions to the sport at this point is a lengthy one, as is his list of accomplishments. The slam dunk future Hall-of-Famer went a bit missing on the results sheet early in 2022 (and was held winless in 2021 after nine victories a year prior) but showed the rest of the field why he’s still a force to be reckoned with in late summer by becoming the only back-to-back winner of the season with strong showings at Michigan and Richmond. He’s currently the active leader in Cup wins with 60, along with a 2014 title to his name – figures he definitely plans to add to this year – but even if he were to hang it up tomorrow, he’s one of the best ever to do this and, even at 47, still one of the best drivers on this list.