There's no denying there's a large competitive imbalance in the Xfinity Series. There are teams still running Dodges – last run as a factory-backed car in 2012 – against teams who have cars that may not be four months old let alone four years.
For many people, the presence of Sprint Cup Series drivers in NASCAR's No. 2 series is the main reason why the disparity from top to bottom in the series is so wide. Cup drivers are hogging victory lane, taking wins that non-Cup drivers would get if there was a ban on drivers from NASCAR's top level racing in a lower series.
But as any longtime fan knows, Cup drivers have been moonlighting in the Xfinity Series for a long, long time. And they've been getting a majority of the wins for a long time too. Cup drivers won 22 of 33 Xfinity Series races in 2014. In 2004, Cup drivers won 19 of 34 races. In 2015, Cup drivers won 23 of 33 Xfinity Series races. In 2005, Cup drivers won 23 of 35 races.
The victory lane disparity really isn't all that large. So why does the disparity feel bigger than ever? To figure that out, you need to look past first place and throughout the top 10.
10 or so years ago, independent teams without a Cup Series affiliation could and did regularly compete for top 10 finishes. Throughout the 2004 season, non-Cup teams made up 155 of the 340 top-10 finishing places (46 percent). When you jump ahead 10 years, non-Cup teams got 23 of the 330 top-10s available. That's less than 7 percent and not even one per race.
It's worse from 2005 to 2015. In 2005, non-Cup teams finished in the top 10 on 145 occasions. In 2015, the number of independent top 10s dropped to 17, or 5 percent.*
Of course, there are more Cup and Cup-affiliated teams in the Xfinity Series now than there were 11 years ago. It's misleading to pretend there hasn't been an increase. But the increase is relatively slight compared to the box score domination.
At Las Vegas in 2005, the 43-car Xfinity Series field was made up of 13 Cup teams (30 percent). In 2015, the 40-car Vegas field had 17 Cup or Cup-affiliated teams^ (43 percent). Five non-Cup teams finished that 2005 Vegas race in the top 10, led by Fitz-Bradshaw Racing in third place. The highest-finishing non-Cup team was 11th in 2015, and that team (Biagi-DenBeste) had Aric Almirola behind the wheel.
That feeling of disparity is reality. Cup Series teams have taken over the Xfinity Series, bulldozed the entire town and rebuilt it to their liking.
This is now the part of the post where we're supposed to offer a solution on how to level the Xfinity Series playing field. But we'll be honest, we don't have one.
Economic realities of racing and the real world have helped promote the gap (a gulf some could see as a microcosm of the growing gap between the uber-wealthy and the rest of the United States). As the costs of speed keep increasing, sponsorship costs do too. Companies have found they can sponsor a Cup driver on a Cup team (and even win a race or two) at the Xfinity Series for a fraction of the price.
Banning Cup drivers from the Xfinity Series has become a common proposed solution. But it does little to bridge the gap. Whoever replaces them in Cup-affiliated equipment will win races and gobble up top 10s.
The last Xfinity Series driver to win a race not driving for a Cup-tied team was Nelson Piquet Jr. driving for Turner-Scott Motorsports at Road America in 2012. And Piquet is a former Formula 1 driver. If you want to disqualify him, teammate James Buescher's incredibly lucky win at Daytona to start the 2012 season is the most recent.
This imbalance could have marketing consequences for NASCAR down the road. The sanctioning body has sold the Xfinity Series as a place where younger drivers can make a name for themselves. And while that's true, the "making a name" part has limited opportunities. When approximately 40 percent of the field is getting over 90 percent of the top 10s, the majority of the field has a miniscule shot at name recognition.
NASCAR's implementation of the Chase in the Xfinity Series this season will be sold as a chance for drivers like Ryan Sieg and Jeremy Clements, owners of their own teams, to have a shot to beat drivers like Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, in powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing equipment for the championship. And sure, Sieg and Clements could advance a round or two in the Chase if they can eke out top-20 finishes and drivers for Cup teams have lots of trouble.
But that flukiness would be like spray-painting a lava rock and saying you found gold when it comes to equality of competition. Barring some drastic changes to the foundations of the operating system within the Xfinity Series, the iron-fisted authoritarian rule of Cup teams is going to continue. And it could get even stronger. Through three races this season, only one driver (Blake Koch) who doesn't drive for a Cup team has finished in the top 10. And even that stat is a bit of a stretch. Koch's team, Kaulig Racing, has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
*Ross Chastain (JD Motorsports) 4 top-10 finishes, Aric Almirola (Biagi DenBeste) 3, Landon Cassill (JD) 2, Benny Gordon (Benny Gordon Racing), J.J. Yeley (JGL Racing), Harrison Rhodes (JD), Ryan Sieg (Ryan Sieg Racing), Dylan Lupton (Athenian Motorsports), David Starr (TriStar Motorsports), Jeremy Clements (Jeremy Clements Racing), Joey Gase (Means Racing)
^For the purposes of this post, JR Motorsports is considered to be a Cup-affiliated team (Hendrick Motorsports) while Kevin Harvick Inc., which formed in 2004, was not considered one in 2004 and 2005. A Cup driver was also considered to be a driver who ran a full schedule in the Cup Series that given season.
- - - - - - -