NASCAR’s Cup Series is the top of the heap, right? It’s the series that most drivers aspire to, certainly, but not everyone.
In October, our driver matchups come from the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The series in its current incarnation took the green flag in 1982, and since then several drivers have been standouts, having their most success in NASCAR’s secondary series.
The rules are simple: drivers’ careers must overlap and be otherwise comparable. That’s it, from there it’s up to the ages to determine who’s top dog.
The Xfinity Series began with Budweiser as title sponsor; that soon shifted to Busch and later to Nationwide and Xfinity. Our first pair are two of the most celebrated drivers to take the green flag, drivers who were a part of the series when it evolved into its modern form: Hall of Famer Jack Ingram and Sam Ard, both two-time champions (Ingram had three titles in the previous Late Model Sportsman division as well). Head to head in NASCAR’s new division, the pair swapped wins and titles, but who was better in the modern series?
When it comes to Jack Ingram and the Xfinity Series, he is truly the Iron Man.
Even before the official branding of the current Xfinity platform in 1982, he was dominating the division when it was the Late Model Sportsman Series, winning three consecutive championships from 1972-74.
His two championships, 31 wins, 122 top fives and 164 top 10s in 275 starts are pretty darn good numbers. Even with the extraordinary fact that he accomplished all of this in his 40s.
He did, though, have one prominent challenger throughout the early years of the series. And that was fellow North Carolina driver Sam Ard. The two drivers only competed in the first three Xfinity seasons together, from 1982-84. Injuries suffered by Ard in a hard 1984 crash at Rockingham Speedway sadly cut his racing career short. Which leaves us to wonder how much longer the two champions could have battled each other on the track.
Ingram’s first two races in the series did not go well, losing an engine at Daytona International Speedway and crashing out at Richmond Raceway. But he quickly turned up the heat, scoring five straight top-five finishes, including his first ever win at Hickory Speedway. He went on to score six more wins and 24 top 10s (23 of them being top fives) to become the inaugural Xfinity champion in 1982. Ard finished runner-up to him in the standings.
In 1983, Ingram replicated his 23 top fives from 1982, to go with 29 top 10s and five wins. But he would end up second in the standings to Ard, who was simply on fire that year.
The 1984 season would be the biggest unchecked box for Ingram. After another DNF at Daytona, he put up eight straight top-five finishes, with four of them being wins. He kept close behind Ard for most of the season, with their performances staying relatively close. But by round 21 at South Boston Speedway, Ingram’s season went downhill. He suffered seven DNFs in the final nine races of the season, two due to crashes and seven from mechanical failures. This, along with Ard’s consistency, is what allowed him to win his second consecutive championship, even with missing the finale at Martinsville Speedway. If those seven DNFs did not occur, I believe he would have had a realistic shot at chasing Ard down for the championship.
After Ard’s retirement from racing, it was all Ingram’s destiny to chase down on his own. He had another impressive 1985 season, taking home the championship with five wins, 17 top fives, and 22 top 10s to boot. Ingram continued racing full time in the series through 1990, plus 12 races in 1991 before calling it a career at age 54.
His total of 31 career wins puts him sixth on the all-time wins list. In his 275 career Xfinity starts, he has a 44.3% top five rate, along with a 59.6% top 10 rate. One can just imagine how much more he could’ve accomplished if the current Xfinity model was implemented sooner or if Ingram was younger when the series began.
On the track, Ard may have put up the biggest challenge to Ingram. But in this battle, Ingram is the one who soars to the top. – Jesse Johnston
Sam Ard ran just three seasons in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series from 1982-84 but made the most of his short time in NASCAR.
Ard reeled off back-to-back series championships in 1983 and 1984, winning 18 races between the two years and four in 1982, the only campaign in which he wasn’t the points leader at the end of the season.
Running for Thomas Brothers Racing in the team’s No. 00, Ard made just 92 starts in the three-year span, but his numbers speak for themselves.
Ard won 22 races while recording 67 top-five finishes and 83 top-10 efforts, averaging a finish of 5.5. Prior to Kyle Busch accomplishing the feat four times in the 21st century, Ard was the only driver to ever win double-digit races in a single season with his 10 in 1983. His average start never dipped below fourth, his average finish always above 6.5.
He recorded 24 poles during his career, winning seven of those front-row starts. He swept Martinsville’s races in 1982 and 1983, also going to victory lane five times at South Boston Speedway.
Consistency is what made Ard so great, as well: between 1983 and 1984, the No. 00 finished in the top nine in 42 straight races. All but one of those were in the top seven, and 37 of the 42 were top fives.
Ard led more than a quarter of all the laps he completed, accomplishing his feats in what’s normally considered a driver’s twilight years – the North Carolina native raced in the series between his 43rd and 45th years of life.
Despite his two fewer wins in 1984 and not running one of the races, it proved to be Ard’s most successful, consistent season. He finished in the top 10 in all but two races, the top five in all but four and won nearly a third of his starts, averaging a 3.1 starting position and a 4.2 finishing result. Just one DNF marred his season – the season finale at Rockingham Speedway, where he was so far ahead that he had locked up the championship weeks before.
After finishing second to Jack Ingram, less than 50 points back, in 1982, Ard won the 1983 crown by nearly 100 points over Ingram and then blew the field away the next year, winning by 426 points, also over Ingram.
It took Ingram several more years to score his 31 wins, and he had several seasons at the tail end of his career where he failed to visit victory lane more than once. Despite being Ard’s biggest competition, Ard exploded onto the scene in 1982 and did all the winning he could while in the division.
Despite the success recent Xfinity regulars have seen, Ard was in another stratosphere – his three-year performance was something incredibly special and one we’ll likely never see again. – Adam Cheek