Do XFINITY Champions Excel in Cup?

The NASCAR XFINITY series is the final challenge a driver must overcome before moving up to the Cup Series. So how do former XFINITY champions perform when they move up?

Defining Our Dataset

The currently named NASCAR XFINITY series was sponsored by Budweiser/Busch from 1982 to 2007, and by Nationwide from 2008-2014. Over the 38 years of the series, 29 drivers have been named XFINITY Champion.

A table with the names and dates of each XFINITY Champion from 1982-2019

Nine drivers have won the title twice, usually in consecutive years, but not always. You’ll notice in the above table that I listed Kevin Harvick’s wins separately. Here’s why:

The greyed-out entries are active Cup drivers who won XFINITY championships. This happened in the second half of the 2000s, which is why NASCAR now limits drivers to earning points in only one series.

It creates a hitch, however, when you’re trying to see if drivers ‘went on’ to Cup success. I’m not counting drivers who won an XFINITY championship after having already won a Cup race in this analysis.

I am, however, including Kevin Harvick’s 2001 championship: He unexpectedly moved up to Cup after Dale Earnhardt’s death. He did win his first Cup race the same year as his XFINITY Championship, but that was very different than an established Cup driver running a lower-level series.

XFINITY Wasn’t Always a Route to Cup

What is now the XFINITY series started off as the Sportsman division in the 1950s, which focused on short tracks. It wasn’t always a stepping stone to Cup racing. You can see that in a plot of the age of XFINITY champs as a function of year.

A scatter plot of the age of XFINITY Champions as a function of year

XFINITY champions have, on average, become consistently younger over the years. There are some notable exceptions

  • Rob Moroso won the championship in 1989 at age 20 (and died the next year, becoming the only NASCAR driver to be awarded the Cup Rookie of the Year posthumously)
  • Brian Vickers won in 2003 at age 19.

The majority of XFINITY Champions in the 1980s were older. You don’t go looking to start a career in Cup as you’re approaching 40. Before 1990, XFINITY Champions didn’t run more than 100 Cup races lifetime.

You can see the changes in the series by looking at the total number of Cup races run by XFINITY Champions.

A scatter plot of the number of Cup races run by XFINITY Champions
  • None of the first 9 XFINITY Champions (7 drivers: two drivers won twice) raced more than 100 Cup races in their careers.
  • Only four drivers ran more than 50 races.
  • No driver from the 1980s ever won a Cup race.
  • The highest season-ending rank achieved by these first XFINITY champions was 23.

Sam Ard only ran one Cup race in his career. That’s not to take anything away from him as a driver. He had a 24% win rate in XFINITY. He won just about one of every four races he ran.

A column chart showing the winning percentage of XFINITY Champions

The only driver who’s surpassed that is Kyle Bush, but only by a little: he’s for a 27% winning rate in XFINITY.

The point of all of this is that it doesn’t make sense to include drivers who weren’t trying to become Cup stars.

Do XFINITY Champions Win Cup Races?

So we’ll limit the analysis to drivers starting in 1991. Bobby Labonte, that year’s XFINITY champion, went on to become a NASCAR Cup Champion. He’s one of three drivers to win championships in both series. The other two are Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr.

But many former XFINITY drivers have not won a Cup race. The graph below breaks out retired and active drivers.

Bar plot showing number of Cup wins by XFINITY Champions 1991-2019
  • 12/19 (63%) of these drivers eventually won at least one Cup race.
  • 31% won ten or more races
  • 7/19 (37%) of XFINITY Champions from 1991-present have never won a Cup race.
  • Among retired drivers, 33% never won a Cup race.
  • 47% of XFINITY Champions won zero or one Cup races.
  • 70% of XFINITY Champs won five or fewer Cup races

The Time Factor

To be fair, three of the winless drivers are the 2016-2019 XFINITY Champions and that might just be because it takes time to win your first Cup race — even for an XFINITY champion. Here’s the number of seasons between an XFINITY championships and the first Cup race won.

Column chart showing how many seasons it took for XFINITY champions to win their first Cup race
  • A third of the drivers won their first Cup race within two seasons of their XFINITY Championship
  • 28% of the drivers didn’t get their first Cup win until four years after their last XFINITY championship.
  • Half of the drivers considered took four years or longer to get their first win.

A Comparison Group

For comparison, let’s consider drivers who were runners-up, but never became XFINITY Champions. Here’s the group:

A table showing drivers who places second in XFINITY, but never won a championship

Yes, Cup champion Matt Kenseth lost the XFINITY Championship to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Thirty percent of these drivers went on to win at least one Cup race. That’s about half the rate of the XFINITY champions but it’s certainly not nothing.

Winning an XFINITY Championship doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good in Cup. But it does mean that you’ve got pretty good odds of getting a Cup ride with a good team.

Can You Tell if an XFINITY Driver is a Good Bet for Cup?

Hiring someone just because they’re a XFINITY champ might not be the best bet. Lets revisit the XFINITY winning percentage graph, this time with the runners-up included.

Column chart showing winning percentages for XFINITY drivers and runners up.

The drivers with higher winning percentages are (mostly) the drivers who went on to be successful in Cup. Even though Matt Kenseth didn’t win the XFINITY Championship, he won a lot of race. He had the misfortune of competing against the guy with the second-highest winning percentage of the drivers considered here.

Comparing Win Percentages

Let’s look at our drivers’ rates of winning in XFINITY vs. CUP. The XFINITY win rate is on the horizontal axis, the CUP rate on the vertical.

Blue diamonds represent our former XFINITY Champions, which red triangles represent the drivers who only placed as high as second in XFINITY.

You can see a bit of a correlation between the two win rates. Although winning a little in XFINITY doesn’t tell you as much about how the driver will do in Cup, those drivers with a 8% or higher win rate in XFINITY do wel in Cup — even if they weren’t XFINITY champions.

Season Rankings

We can make the same comparison with season-ending rankings, as that gives us a little more data to work with. This compares the percentage of top tens in XFINITY to the highest season ranking in Cup.

Again, if you got more than 50% top tens in XFINITY, you’re likely to reach a higher ranking in Cup — again, with the caveat that it might take some time.

Blue diamonds represent our former XFINITY Champions, which red triangles represent the drivers who only placed as high as second in XFINITY.

Top Tens

One more: Let’s look at percentage of top tens in XFINITY and Cup.

Blue diamonds represent our former XFINITY Champions, which red triangles represent the drivers who only placed as high as second in XFINITY.

You see an even better correlation here between rates at which drivers ran in the top ten in XFINITY vs. Cup. Note that these are cumulative percentages. Like the above, it might take a little time for the driver to show his or her promise.

Championships Matter, But…

An XFINITY Championship means your driver might be more likely to do well in Cup, but there’s no guarantee. Conversely, the lack of a championship doesn’t mean all that much either. What you really have to look at is the breadth of the driver’s record.

Some of that will change given the changes to the Championship. Because it all comes down to one race at the end, the all around strongest driver may not be the Champion. As these statistics evolve, I predict that we’ll see that whether you got the Championship or not will be even less important in predicting your success in Cup.

Also, this data shows that a team who invests in an XFINITY champion needs to see that investment on a four-to-five year plan. Chase Elliott, for example, is going to be a great driver. Hendrick stuck with him, knowing it might take some time before he won. Other XFINITY Champions haven’t had the benefit of that much stability or patience.

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