June 15, 2024

Road to the Cup Series

NASCAR Cup Series Championship

While many fans and followers are focused on, today we are going to examine what factors it takes for drivers in the lower series, particularly the Xfinity Series, to make it to the Cup level and, more important, stay at the Cup level and attain success. While the Series, which has been around since 1982 with various corporate sponsor names, similar to AAA baseball and the Korn Ferry Tour in golf, it is a breeding ground for the next generation of not only NASCAR drivers but crew chiefs and crew members.

The Xfinity Series takes place at tracks across the country, oftentimes racing the day prior to Cup series events. One of our personal favorite aspects of the series is that in the first half of the season when owns broadcast rights before passing the baton to NBC, Cup series drivers are in the booth calling the action for each and every Xfinity race. 

Back In the Day

As mentioned, the series began in 1982, and winners at the time, Sal Ard, Jack Ingram, and Larry Pearson, are names familiar to only the most rabid of car racing fans, the 1991 champion, Bobby Labonte, is well known to nearly everyone in the sport. More recognizable to even the most casual fans was the series’ Rookie of the Year in 1991, none other than Jeff Gordon. Back to Labonte, he was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2020 and became the first driver to win both an Xfinity (then Busch Series) title along with a Cup title (2000). He finished his NASCAR career with 21 wins and 203 top 10’s.

The rest of the 90’s featured more under-the-radar champs until the 1998 season, when the son of one of the sport’s brightest stars stepped into the limelight.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr., or just “Junior” to fans, won the series in both 1998 and 1999 over Matt Kenseth in ’98 and Jeff Green in ’99.

Statistically speaking, for true fans of the sport as well as bettors who invest their hard-earned money on the outcome week in and week out, Labonte in 1991 and Earnhardt Jr. in 1998 and especially 1999 led an inordinate amount of laps. So, in addition to the wins, their equipment and driving abilities put them in the front of fields every week. Laps-led, historically speaking, is the best indicator of success at the next level, in our opinion, more than wins. The more laps led, the more consistency and the less racing luck plays into the equation.

Into The New Century

Whereas the winners from 1982-1999 were relatively pedestrian besides and Earnhardt, Jr., a 2020 Hall of Famer who won 26 times on the Cup side.

A stark contrast happened at the turn of the century as drivers and cars who dominated on the Xfinity circuit translated that success to wins and titles on the Cup side. In fact, from 2000-2012, every Xfinity Series champ has won at least three times on the Cup side, with the exception of 2001 champ Jeff Green. Names like Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski all tasted victory in the Xfinity series before taking their careers to the next level.

In recent years, rising stars of the sport Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, and Austin Cindric all qualified for the 2022 Cup playoffs, a sign that their time in prepared them to race against the proverbial big boys of the sport.

With current Xfinity stars Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson poised to join the Cup series full-time next season, expect more of the same as the next generation continues to excel and win.

One Big Difference

While the Cup series went to a Next Gen car to begin the 2022 season, Xfinity drivers and teams raced in older/less modern equipment. Also, in addition to the big three manufacturers of Ford, General Motors (Chevrolet), and Toyota, Chrysler also had cars within the series from 2002-2007.  

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