The NASCAR Cup Series is the pinnacle of stock car racing in the United States of America.
What’s unique about the pinnacle is that there is no agreed upon path in reaching it. In baseball, there’s high school, college, A, AA and AAA before the MLB. In football, there’s high school and college before the NFL.
Sure, NASCAR has the Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series, the ARCA Menards Series, the Craftsman Truck Series and the Xfinity Series, but a driver doesn’t have to compete in one after the other in order to advance; advancement is the onus of the drivers, teams and sponsors.
Thus, no path to Cup is exactly the same. But looking at the most successful Cup drivers of the 21st century yields several clues to a recommended ladder.
Tony Stewart won Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 1999, and he was NASCAR’s first superstar to have debuted after the formation of the Truck Series in 1995.
Of all the Cup rookies that have debuted since 1999, 25 of them have gone on to win at least five Cup races as of Oct. 11, 2023. What the 25 share in common is that almost all of them had extended stays in the Xfinity Series before moving up to Cup full time.
The amount of time spent in Xfinity is not constant. Some of the drivers spent years in Xfinity before moving up. Some spent just a season or part of a season before progressing. Others spent multiple seasons in both Trucks and Xfinity before ascending, while some spent a partial season in Trucks and a full season in Xfinity.
Busch did not make his NASCAR national series debut until 2000, and he found himself in a Cup car in less than a year’s time. He drove full time for RFK Racing’s Truck team in 2000, and he replaced Chad Little in RFK’s No. 97 Cup car in the closing months of that season. He permanently took over the ride in 2001. Busch skipped the Xfinity Series entirely, and he did not make his debut in that series until 2006.
Edwards ran full-time Truck seasons in 2003 and 2004, and he was promoted to RFK’s No. 99 Cup car in the middle of ’04 to replace the departing Jeff Burton. Edwards took over the ride full time for 2005, but unlike Busch, he did double duty by simultaneously driving a full-time Xfinity season for RFK.
Those two were the only high-profile exceptions in the first 20 years of Truck history, and by the mid-2010s, the ladder had gradually shifted to at least one full-time Truck season followed by at least one complete Xfinity season before Cup. That’s the path that Erik Jones, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick all took before their Cup rookie seasons, and plenty of others took slight deviations of that same route; some drivers like Chris Buescher and Ty Gibbs skipped Trucks entirely.
Xfinity, Xfinity, Xfinity. It wasn’t until 2022 that a driver bucked the popular trend, as Todd Gilliland was promoted to Front Row Motorsports’ Cup team after spending two seasons with its Truck team (and three-and-a-half seasons in Trucks overall).
Flash forward to the present day, and the Truck-to-Cup jump is regaining popularity. In the 2024 Cup rookie class, there are two full-time Truck drivers who will graduate to Cup: Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar.
While Gilliland has yet to make his Xfinity debut, Smith has competed in only 12 Xfinity races (10 of which came in 2019). Hocevar only has five Xfinity starts under his belt — all of which came in 2023 — and both drivers will head to Cup (or in Hocevar’s case, head to Cup full time) after just a combined 17 starts in NASCAR’s second series.
These moves didn’t occur out of happenstance. There are now three sets of drivers, teams and sponsors in the last two years who have decided that Xfinity isn’t a necessity on the road to Cup. What changed?
The Next Gen car debuted in the 2022 season, and it’s thrown everyone — teams, drivers, fans and even NASCAR itself — for a loop. Ask any Cup driver today, and they’ll tell you many differences there are between the Next Gen car and the current Xfinity car.
Ask any Truck or Xfinity driver who has made Cup starts and they’ll tell you the same thing.
“Qualifying, I just honestly under drove it, like way under drove it,” he said. “Didn’t even roll all the way out of the throttle there and thought I had a decent lap, but [the Next Gen cars] just have so much grip that I was not ready for.
“And going from the Xfinity car where you have like no grip and you’re slipping and sliding around to the Cup car, I just didn’t have a good feel for how much grip it was going to have. I was actually talking about [this] yesterday; I think it’s actually easier to go from a truck to the Cup car because the truck has so much more grip and kind of drives similar in a way.”
Creed isn’t the only driver to say that the Xfinity cars have little to no grip.
“You’re trying to minimize sliding and … there’s not a lot of grip in those [Xfinity cars],” Hocevar said at World Wide Techonology Raceway at Gateway in June. “You’re just trying to find the most grip. That’s where I felt like I’m best at.”
A Cup car has all the grip in the world while a Xfinity car has no grip. And if the Cup cars and trucks are similar to drive, it should also stand to reason that a Xfinity car does not run similar to a truck.
That too seems to be a prevailing sentiment.
“As far as drivability, [these cars] don’t drive anything similar at all,” Chandler Smith said at Nashville Superspeedway in June. “[Xfinity] cars have no downforce and no side force, while a truck has all the downforce and all the side force in the world.”
At the end of the day, the Truck and Xfinity series are not the permanent homes for the majority of drivers coming up the NASCAR ladder. They’re going to follow the most suitable path to Cup, and if a truck provides a better experience in preparing for the Next Gen than a Xfinity car does, more teams and sponsors will be looking toward the Truck field for potential Cup talent.
Perhaps Smith and Hocevar are the second set of trailblazers for a future Truck-to-Cup ladder that might become the norm with the similar-driving Next Gen car.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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