The Xfinity Series Race at COTA Proved Why a 6-Year-Old NASCAR Rule Works
The NASCAR Xfinity Series race this past Saturday at the Circuit of the Americas looked like an old-fashioned race in the sport’s second-tier series, which proves why a change NASCAR made six years ago has improved the developmental series.
Along with no stage breaks in a race for the first time since 2017, Saturday’s race had full-time Cup Series drivers dominate throughout the event. AJ Allmendinger, who moved back to full-time status in NASCAR’s top series this season after two full-time seasons in the Xfinity Series, won the pole award and led the first 14 laps of the event.
He also led the final 14 laps to beat fellow Cup Series regulars William Byron and Ty Gibbs to the finish line. The trio combined to lead 29 of the 48 laps. Sheldon Creed (16 laps led) and Parker Kligerman (one lap) were the only non-Cup Series drivers to lead laps in the Xfinity Series race at COTA.
Cup Series drivers used to regularly dominate the Xfinity Series
This type of event used to be typical for the Xfinity Series. Drivers from NASCAR’s top level would regularly enter the Saturday races, and several ran entire seasons to compete for the Xfinity Series championship. In fact, a driver who also ran the entire Cup Series schedule won the Xfinity Series title every year from 2006-10.
While the name recognition increased with Cup Series stars in Xfinity Series fields, the competition did not. For example, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick combined to win 26 of the 35 Xfinity Series races in 2010, with Keselowski winning the title.
The domination of Cup Series drivers at the lower level affected the quality of drivers who graduated from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series in those years. The Cup Series Rookie of the Year winners from 2010-12 were Kevin Conway, Andy Lally, and Stephen Leicht, none of whom had more than three lead-lap finishes in their award-winning seasons.
Amid complaints from Xfinity Series regulars and fans alike, NASCAR implemented limits in 2017 on how many races full-time Cup Series drivers could run in either the Xfinity Series or Craftsman Truck Series. The initial rules held drivers with more than five years of Cup Series experience to 10 races or fewer, but the sanctioning body later tightened those rules in 2020 to hold drivers with more than three years of Cup Series experience to a maximum of five races in each lower series.
Cup Series drivers are also ineligible to run the regular-season finale or playoff races in the lower series.
Participation limits on Cup Series drivers have allowed developing drivers to shine in the Xfinity Series
Each of the Xfinity Series champions from 2017-20 have gone on to make a legitimate impact in the Cup Series.
Byron, the 2017 Xfinity Series champ, has six career Cup Series wins and reached the Round of 8 in the 2022 playoffs. Tyler Reddick won the 2018 and 2019 Xfinity Series titles and made the Cup Series playoffs in both 2021 and 2022, along with three victories in 2022. Austin Cindric won the 2020 Xfinity Series championship, finished runner-up for the title a year later, and then won the 2022 Daytona 500.
Daniel Hemric beat out Cindric for the 2021 Xfinity Series championship, as he returned to the series after a full-time Cup Series campaign in 2019 and multiple part-time rides in 2020. It is still too early to tell how 2022 Xfinity Series champion Gibbs’ Cup Series career will unfold, but he is with a top team in his grandfather’s Joe Gibbs Racing stable and already has a pair of top-10 finishes through the first six races of the current Cup Series season.
All told, NASCAR’s much-debated changes to its participation limits back in 2017 have had a net positive effect. Current young Cup Series stars such as Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, and Reddick may have never gotten an opportunity to rise to the Cup Series level, or at least not have had as much of a chance to showcase their skills for potential prominent Cup Series owners.
The Xfinity Series has turned back into a truly developmental series that still allows the top stars in the sport to come visit and provide some additional interest from time to time, but not so much that they overshadow the drivers who are trying to learn and create a resume that will get them noticed at the next level.
A race such as Saturday’s event at COTA was a reminder of what used to be a regular feature the day before Cup Series races. Thankfully, however, the series has proven it can support itself, develop stars on its own, and have entertaining events without having polished, veteran drivers from the top of the sport needed to prop up each event.