If you are a fan of parity in NASCAR, there is good news. Whoever wins the XFINITY Series championship in 2016 will do so for the first time. All of the drivers who remain in Chase contention have never hoisted the championship trophy. It makes the prospect of this year’s championship battle all the more exciting, especially knowing that some of NASCAR’s best young prospects will be in the mix. There is no doubt that winning the championship would be a huge accomplishment for any of the Chasers. Yet for a series that is widely regarded as a developmental division, not all the past champions of the XFINITY Series have been superstars in the making.
In fact, winning an XFINITY title does not guarantee any kind of future success or specific career path in NASCAR, especially when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series. Since NASCAR re-formatted the Sportsman Division into the modern XFINITY Series in 1982, there have been 26 individual champions. Of those drivers, only four have ever won a Cup Series championship: Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Moreover, Harvick, Busch and Keselowski won their titles while also competing full-time in Sprint Cup.
The rest of the past XFINITY champions are current Cup stars still seeking a championship in NASCAR’s top division, Cup veterans who won races throughout their careers, up and coming drivers still in their first few years of Sprint Cup competition, short track aces who made only limited starts at the top level and drivers who attempted to carve out a place for themselves in Sprint Cup but never managed to win.
Realistically, the idea of a driver winning an XFINITY championship and using it as a springboard to Sprint Cup superstardom is not a regular occurrence in professional stock car racing. The best examples are Labonte, who won the championship in 1991 before beginning his full-time Cup career; Harvick, who unexpectedly landed a Cup ride in 2001 and competed in both divisions; and Keselowski, who also won an XFINITY title while concurrently running his first full-time season in Sprint Cup. In most cases, however, any one NXS championship does not foretell a driver’s future any better or worse than any one Sprint Cup does.
So what do these trends mean for the current crop of XFINITY drivers? A few of this season’s championship contenders, particularly Ty Dillon and Erik Jones, will probably go Cup racing in the near future. Other drivers like Daniel Suarez, Brandon Jones, Brennan Poole and Darrell Wallace Jr. no doubt want to increase their chances of getting to the big show, and having a championship on their resume would do that.
As for Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan, an XFINITY title would probably be the crowning achievement of their NASCAR careers (understanding that Allgaier will likely continue to race longer than Sadler and Gaughan). A championship would be a big deal for all of them, but the only thing the championship really signifies is who the best driver in 2016 is, assuming you have enough faith in the elimination-style Chase’s ability to identify that driver in the first place.
In Sprint Cup, having a strong team and time to develop are worth a lot more than an XFINITY championship trophy. Chase Elliott, for instance, is surpassing the already-high expectations most people had for him in Sprint Cup. Meanwhile, Chris Buescher has struggled mightily in his first full-time Sprint Cup season. Both Elliott and Buescher won championships in NASCAR’s second-tier division, but their rookie year results have differed greatly thus far. Buescher’s season bears much more resemblance to that of fellow rookie Brian Scott, while Ryan Blaney’s level of performance has fallen somewhere between that of Elliott and Buescher.
If Buescher had been able to join forces with one of NASCAR’s top teams, he could have gone on an Elliott-like run of his own. Yet Buescher is racing with Front Row Motorsports, a team that has ties to Roush-Fenway Racing but lacks the overall resources to keep up with Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports. It is a hard reality of racing that not every talented driver gets to race with a great team, even if that driver brings a prior championship with him.
Nobody really knows how the careers of Elliott and Buescher will turn out, and forecasting the futures of other recent XFINITY champs is not much easier. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. lit up NASCAR’s second tier series with back-to-back titles, but he is still searching for his first Sprint Cup victory. Will Stenhouse be a mid-pack racer forever? Could he be the next Joey Logano and turn into a championship contender with a new team? Then there is Austin Dillon, who finally seems to be turning a corner this season. Will he lead Richard Childress Racing back to greatness? Or will someone like Kyle Larson, who does not have an XFINITY championship, reach greater heights than Stenhouse or Dillon?
NASCAR’s latest youth movement has generated a lot of excitement, and for good reason. Expect the Sprint Cup Series to look very different 10 years from now in terms of driver lineup. There will likely be a few past XFINITY champions on the starting grid each week. The drivers who will be most successful, however, will be the ones who landed strong teams and loyal sponsors. Do not be surprised if some of NASCAR’s next big stars are the guys who won, and lost, XFINITY titles on their way to the top.