The 5 Non-Cup Series Drivers Most Likely to Be Future Cup Stars
With Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and others perhaps just a few years away from retirement, it’s time to start thinking about drivers who could replace these veterans of the NASCAR Cup Series.
Starting with the least likely, let’s take a look at the five non-Cup Series drivers most likely to join NASCAR’s premier division as early as 2024 and why they should be considered candidates for a ride at the sport’s top level.
5. Ben Rhodes
Louisville, Kentucky, native Ben Rhodes has become a perennial championship contender in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, finishing no worse than ninth in points over the last six seasons.
Rhodes’ best season to date came in 2021 when he won two races on the way to his first series championship — a championship he locked up with a third-place finish in the season finale at Phoenix, where he provided a rather entertaining post-race press conference that you can watch a portion of below.
Although the ThorSport Racing driver fell short this past season in his bid to become the series’ second winner of back-to-back championships, Rhodes once again qualified for the Championship 4, finishing runner-up in the standings to Zane Smith.
The 25-year-old has collected four of his six career truck wins over the past three seasons. He’s made one start in the NASCAR Cup Series and 10 starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, notching a pair of top-10 finishes in the latter division when he ran a partial schedule in 2015.
4. Chandler Smith
Second only to eventual Camping World Truck Series champion Zane Smith in race wins this past season, Chandler Smith — who’s of no known relation to Zane — went to Victory Lane three times in his Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. He finished third in the standings, five spots better than his outcome from the previous year.
After just two full seasons in trucks, Chandler is moving to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2023 to compete full-time for Kaulig Racing in the seat formerly occupied by veteran A.J. Allmendinger, who is taking over a full-time Cup Series ride with the organization.
Chandler’s deal with Kaulig, which fields multiple Cup and Xfinity Series teams, is multi-year. The team executives have expressed a desire to expand the organization’s Cup Series program in the near future. If Kaulig adds a third Cup Series car in 2024 or 2025, expect Chandler to be on the shortlist of candidates to fill the seat, assuming all goes well for him on the Xfinity Series side.
3. Austin Hill
On the heels of four mostly successful seasons as a full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, Austin Hill made the leap in 2022 to the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he won two races and finished sixth in the standings.
One of Hill’s victories came in a wild season opener at Daytona, which set the stage for his strong debut campaign with Richard Childress Racing. Although Hill could not reach the Championship 4, it was still an all-around solid year for the 28-year-old Winston, Georgia native, who seemed to make a seamless transition from trucks to Xfinity.
Over the last four seasons, Hill has won 10 races between the Truck Series and the Xfinity Series — a clear indicator of his talent and ability. With 2022 championship frontrunners Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson both going full-time Cup Series racing in 2023, Hill will be widely considered a title favorite at the outset of 2023 if he returns to RCR, which is expected.
In addition, Hill will make six Cup Series starts for Beard Motorsports.
2. Zane Smith
Newly minted NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Zane Smith enjoyed a season for the ages in 2022, winning a series-high four races on the way to the series championship.
Competing for Front Row Motorsports, Zane amassed a series-high 19 top-10 finishes and 14 top-fives in 23 starts. Before joining Front Row in 2022, he went to Victory Lane three times over two seasons with GMS Racing and finished as the championship runner-up in both years.
Zane will return to Front Row Motorsports and the Truck Series to defend his title in 2023. But he’ll also run select Cup Series events for the organization — the first coming in the Daytona 500. Look for Zane to make the jump to full-time Cup Series competition no later than 2024, possibly with Front Row or another organization.
1. Josh Berry
A nationally renowned Late Model driver over many years for JR Motorsports’ Late Model program, Josh Berry made the huge leap to full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series competition for the company in 2022. He certainly didn’t disappoint.
After making 22 Xfinity Series starts that included two wins for JRM in 2021, Berry went to Victory Lane three times in 2022 and rang up an impressive 20 top-10 finishes.
Most importantly, though, he qualified for the Championship 4 — a major achievement for a driver in Year One as a full-time Xfinity competitor. Berry will be back in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevy in 2023, and he’ll likely enter the season as the favorite to win the title.
If JR Motorports ever decides to go Cup racing, look for Berry to move up with the organization. But even if JRM continues to compete exclusively in Xfinity for years to come, Berry could be tabbed for a Cup opportunity that’s too good for him to pass up.