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How Long Should Drivers Stay in Lower Series Before Moving Up to Cup?

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What’s Happening?

The debate about the right time for a driver to jump up to the Cup Series was ignited this weekend when Sam Mayer admitted he was upset that he isn’t getting more Cup Series attention. Denny Hamlin offered a more nuanced take on the subject, saying that drivers should wait for the right time, saying, “I am definitely of the opinion winning on Friday or Saturday is better than running 25th on Sunday.” How long should a driver wait before moving up to Cup?

  • The driver development ladder has changed significantly in recent years. In the past, young drivers worked up to top Cup Series equipment by proving themselves with smaller teams. Nowadays, rookie drivers are winning equipment out of the gate, meaning expectations are higher.
  • Drivers are also getting into the sport at a much younger age. Rookies in top equipment are often in their early 20s, compared to the past when many rookies often didn’t start racing in top equipment until their 30s.
  • Fans are always eager to see young drivers get an opportunity in the Cup Series. However, a wrong move in the development of a young driver can often impact an entire career.

Right Time and Right Situation

One thing is for certain, developing a NASCAR Cup Series driver is a multi-year process. It takes time to develop the necessary skill set to become a driver, as evidenced by how long drivers spend in the lower series. Amongst current active drivers who started racing full-time this decade, 8/12 (67%) spent three or four seasons racing in the lower series full-time, with only two spending less than that.

Full-Time Xfinity SeasonsFull-Time Truck SeasonsTotal Full-Time Lower Series Seasons
Tyler Reddick224
John Hunter Nemechek123
Christopher Bell224
Ty Gibbs101
Chase Briscoe213
Austin Cindric415
Todd Gilliland033
Harrison Burton213
Noah Gragson426
Carson Hocevar033
Zane Smith044
Josh Berry202

This is not a magic bullet for a Cup Series driver to become a weekly race-win contender. There’s a lot more that goes into that. Drivers in the past were maybe rushed into Cup a little too soon.

For example, Daniel Suarez was rushed to Cup the year after winning the Xfinity Series Championship 2016. He only had two full-time Xfinity Series seasons under his belt, but JGR had an opening due to Carl Edwards abruptly retiring. After two struggling seasons where Suarez finished 20th and 21st in points, respectively, JGR let him go when Martin Truex Jr. needed a seat after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.

However, this doesn’t just apply to race teams but also to drivers. Hamlin was specifically alluding to drivers jumping up to the Cup in potentially unfavorable situations.

The equipment also makes a difference. Take Kyle Busch in 2024 as an example. He has more career wins than any current full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, yet he is currently out of the Playoffs. Many point to his race team, RCR, as the culprit.

Looking at a younger driver, did Harrison Burton jumping up to Cup make the most sense in 2022? After he went winless in the Xfinity Series in 2021, he jumped up to The Wood Brothers, who hadn’t won a race since 2017. Was that the best situation for Burton, or should he have stayed in Xfinity for a little longer?

However, there is also the counterexample of Suarez and Burton, Ty Gibbs. Gibbs only had one full-time Xfinity Series season, where he won the Championship, and he jumped up to Cup in 2023. While he has not won a race yet, he is currently in a position to make the Cup Series Playoffs on points.

That said, there is no hard and fast rule for this. However, generally speaking, giving drivers time to develop and putting them in a good situation allows them to succeed.

What do you think about all this? Let us know on Discord or X what your take is, and don’t forget you can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and even YouTube.

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Joshua Lipowski

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