In American motorsport, becoming a NASCAR champion is one of the pinnacles of achievement. Few who master stock car racing also win in single-seaters, but one feeder series star proved it’s possible on Saturday
Last weekend, the Indy Pro 2000 Oval Challenge of St. Louis was dominated by Salvador de Alba. The Mexican 22-year-old claimed pole convincingly, then converted it into victory by almost six seconds. Even more impressive was the fast that that Jay Howard Driver Development man is a single-seater racing rookie.
De Alba wants to be an IndyCar driver, but the path he has taken on that journey so far is unconventional. After a karting career in which he was as active in the United States as he was at home in Mexico, de Alba did one Formula 4 Sudamericana round in Uruguay but then switched to the Super Copa Mexico bill and debuted in the Super V8 touring car series.
He spent two seasons there, then for 2017 made a winning appearance in the Freightliner Truck racing series and stepped up into NASCAR’s top tier in Mexico aged just 17 and with the Sidral Aga team. A bit like Red Bull, the Mexican drinks brand has an extensive motorsport portfolio domestically and supports drivers through karting, touring cars and single-seaters.
Two poles and a podium were earned in de Alba’s rookie campaign, and in 2018 there were a further four poles and a maiden win on the Cajititlan oval en route to sixth in the standings. The 2019 season went even better as Sidral Aga switched from running Toyotas to Fords, and de Alba came second in the championship. At the same time, he had established himself as a star of Mexico’s truck racing scene and won Super Copa’s single-make Mercedes-Benz touring car championship.
A tougher 2020 season did include wins but meant de Alba was not a title contender in anything he was racing in, but he rebounded in style last year by becoming NASCAR Mexico champion aged 21. During the summer he also tested one of Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights cars at Mid-Ohio, and seed was sown to make it onto the Road to Indy.
He tried the IP2000 car, the step below Indy Lights, in pre-season testing and thought it fitted so signed a deal with JHDD. Since then he’s been a quiet success story, and did actually take his first win on the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway but only after the original winner was disqualified post-race for an illegal car.
So, following podiums on the Road America and Mid-Ohio road courses, it wasn’t until last weekend’s Gateway oval race that de Alba finally actually met the chequered flag in first place. And following that achievement, we thought it was about time to find out just how few NASCAR champions have actually won in single-seater racing. And all but de Alba have had their open-wheel success come first and their first NASCAR win come after.
It may not be a totally exhaustive list, and excludes seasons of stock car series once NASCAR ended their sanctioning of them, but here are the merry few…
NASCAR career stats in italics
Tony Stewart USA
1996-97 IndyCar champion, 3rd in ’98 IndyCar, 8th in ’96 IndyCar, 33rd in ’99 IndyCar – 2002, ’05 & 2011 Cup Series champion, 2nd in ’01 Cup Series, 4th in ’99 Cup Series, 6th in 2000, ’04, ’07 & ’09 Cup Series, 7th in ’03 & ’10 Cup Series
The template for all drivers wishing to make it big in stock cars and single-seaters. And that’s a comment on Stewart’s success!
Now a successful team boss in NASCAR and the man behind the franchise’s return to dirt track racing in recent years, Stewart started his car racing career on short track ovals and after a few years became one of the USA’s top young talents.
By 1995 he was the undisputed king of the scene, and had set his ambitions simultaneously for the world of stock cars and Indy car racing. As he got a taste of what is now NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series, he also landed a seat with Team Menard in the newly created Indy Racing League after reportedly turning down a AJ Foyt Racing seat because it precluded him from racing in NASCAR.
IRL, the oval-based breakaway series from CART, had three races and Stewart was only signed a week before the opening round on Walt Disney World Speedway. He qualified seventh, and was leading by lap 29 of his debut. Ultimately he didn’t quite have the pace to beat Buzz Calkins to victory and finished second in his first race.
At Phoenix International Raceway he was faster, qualifying fourth, leading 11 laps and fighting for another podium before a car problem ended his race. The Indianapolis 500 was the final round, and Stewart turned up and quickly set a record pace for a rookie. In qualifying he ended up third, but started the race from pole as top qualifier Scott Brayton was killed in practice and second-fastest man Arie Luyendyk was disqualified on a technical matter. Stewart would go on to lead 44 laps of the race itself, but engine issues ended his race again and his parallel NASCAR campaign was not going much better.
The 1996-97 IRL season consisted of 10 races and Stewart stayed on at Menard, becoming the star of the series. Although he only won one race, his maiden single-seater triumph coming at the Pikes Peak oval in June 1997, he led more than six times as many laps as anyone else across the season and was crowned champion with finishes in only half of the races.
Stewart dominated the laps led chart again the next season and added another two wins but slipped to third in the standings with many non-finishes again, then his single-seater career extended to the 1999 and 2001 editions of the Indy 500 in which he finished ninth and sixth and that was that.
NASCAR was Stewart’s priority by then, as after picking up four podiums in the second tier in ’98 he moved up to the top-tier Cup Series in ’99. He stunningly qualified second on debut, for the Daytona 500 no less, and won three times as a rookie. His winning form translated into title success in 2002 and again in ’05, and for 2009 he bought into the Haas team that would later race in Formula 1. A third title arrived in 2011, as well as a taste of F1 machinery at Watkins Glen as part of a car swap with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, and he also won races in part-time campaigns in the lower tiers.
Ander Vilarino SPAIN
8th in 2002 & ’03 World Series by Nissan, 12th in ’04 WSbyN, 2001 Spanish F3 champion, 2000 FSuper Toyota champion, 11th in 1998 FRench FR2.0, 4th in 1996 FCampus – 2012, ’13 & ’15 Euro Series champion, 2nd in ’14 Euro Series, 5th in ’19 Euro Series
The inaugural champion of the series that would evolve to become Euroformula, Vilarino was one of the Spanish talents picked out to be a star of the future but never quite delivered at a level to put himself in F1 contention.
He raced in Formula Campus then Formula Renault 2.0 in France, before joining the Formula Super Toyota series in Spain and winning the 2000 title driving for Emilio de Villota. It wasn’t quite at the Formula 3 performance level but was effectively the predecessor to the Spanish F3 series that would arrive a year later and which Vilarino would also become champion of racing for future GP2 team Racing Engineering.
That success enabled him to step up to World Series by Nissan (which would later become FR3.5) with the Epsilon by Graff operation for 2002. There were two pole positions but only one podium in 18 races and Vilarino came eighth in the standings, an outcome he would match in 2003 although this time in a more competitive field he claimed four podiums and took his first win at Barcelona. There wasn’t a follow-up victory though and he left the series halfway through 2004 to switch his focus to prototype sportscar racing.
His name wasn’t really going anywhere after half a decade in that, despite winning often, and so Vilarino switched to stock cars in 2011. The format and type of cars seemed to suit him, and when the series he raced in became sanctioned by NASCAR the next year he was well prepared to become the first NASCAR champion of Europe.
Vilarino became a back-to-back champion in 2013, was runner-up in ’14 and champion again the year after. Following that he picked up from where he left off in prototypes, but eventually got the bug to race in NASCAR again in 2019 and ’20.
Alon Day ISRAEL
12th in 2012 Indy Lights, 4th in 2011 German F3, 8th in ’11 Austrian F3 Cup, 2009 Asian FR2.0 champion – Currently 1st in 2022 Euro Series, 2017, ’18 & ’20 Euro Series champion, 2nd in 2015 Euro Series, 3rd in 2016 Euro Series, 44th in ’17 Cup Series
Tied with Vilarino on three European titles in NASCAR, Day did not achieve as much success in single-seaters but was an Israeli motorsport trailblazer.
As a teenager he won the Asian FR title in 2009, then stepped up into German F3 for two years and came fourth in his second season with a team that arguably was never going to carry him to the title regardless of his own abilities. He also contested some F3 Euro Series races and didn’t embarrass himself, before making the leap into Indy Lights for 2012.
Day only lasted half a season in IndyCar’s main feeder series though, and the 20-year-old looked to the FIA GT Series before finally finding his calling in NASCAR. As a rookie he finished second to Vilarino in the 2015 title chase, came third in his sophomore season then romped to two successive titles. Two costly mid-season retirements arguably cost him his shot at making it three in a row in 2019, but he made up for it by winning the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season.
There were more wins but a lower position in the points table last year, and now he’s on course for title number four.
Day has also made a few starts in America, coming 13th in an Xfinity race in 2016 and making his Cup Series debut a year later.
German Quiroga MEXICO
25th in 2005 Indy Lights, 2005 FR2.0 de America champion, 7th in 2003 Barber Dodge Pro Series – 2009, ’10 & ’11 Mexico Series champion, 2nd in 2008 Mexico Series, 6th in 2014 Truck Series, 13th in 2013 Truck Series, 31st in 2016 Truck Series
According to internet records, Quiroga raced in the Indy Lights Panamericana series in 1998. It was a series that used old Indy Lights cars and ran races in Central and South America, but there’s little supporting evidence on Quiroga’s involvement.
He did however race in closed-wheel competition in the years after before definitely appearing in single-seaters in the Barber Dodge Pro Series – a similar-level series to what USF2000 is today – in 2002 and he came 16th in the standings. The next year he was an improved seventh, claiming a podium on the Cleveland airfield track, and then the series was no more so he switched to stock cars.
At the same time he did some open-wheel racing part-time elsewhere, particularly in FR2.0 cars, and won the Panamerican championship in 2005 with two race wins in Mexico and Guatemala. He also felt confident enough to join the Freedom 100 grid in Indy Lights, and finished 10th on what was his one and only Indy Lights start.
NASCAR took up his attention thereon, coming second in Mexico’s top tier series in 2008 and then winning the championship for the next three years in a row. With nothing left to prove on home soil he then went into the Truck Series and never quite managed to win a race, being pipped on an oval and a road course in 2014 (the latter by just 0.049 seconds) but did come eighth in the points in his second season and managed to make an Xfinity Series start. He’s now back racing in Mexico.
Andrew Ranger was a star karter, was the 2003 FR2.0 North America champion and rocketed up the single-seater ladder as he came fourth as a rookie in Atlantics in 2004 and then progressed straight into Champ Car for 2005 with Conquest Racing. Even more crazily impressive was finishing second in just his second ever race in Fundidora Park in Mexico.
The results after that were far less impressive though and he sank to 10th in the standings. He was 10th again in 2006, and this time finished no higher than fifth in any of the races, bringing his single-seater career to a close.
Following that, Ranger moved into NASCAR’s Canadian series and won it at his first attempt, with a second crown coming two years later and then a third a decade after that. He’s also won in the fourth and fifth tiers of NASCAR racing in the USA, made the Xfinity Series podium and in 2011 made his sole Cup Series start.
Anthony Kumpen has won one single-seater race, and it was the promotional race at Zandvoort that preceded the inaugural Formula Chrysler Euroseries season. He didn’t even go and compete in the new junior series once it did begin though, instead returning to a long and successful sportscar career on home soil in Belgium and also in the USA.
He joined the NASCAR Euro Series in 2014 and used consistency to win the title at his first attempt, then an enviable ability to keep on picking up podiums made him a two-time champion in 2016. He was runner-up in 2017, and also did a few Xfinity Series races.
Equally as obscure, V8 Supercars driver-turned-team boss Brad Jones claims he won the Formula Ford support race at the 1980 Australian Grand Prix. It is admittedly hard to find evidence if he actually did, but he certainly made his name in stock cars as he won five AUSCAR titles in a row then finally a NASCAR-sanctioned success in the 1994-95 Australia Series.
Rather less fortunate is multiple-time grand prix winner and single-seater star of the Pacific region Andrew Miedecke who won the Australia Series in 2001 but by that point it was not a NASCAR-affiliated series anymore.
Lasse Sorensen came second in Danish FFord in 2013, won the French F4 title in 2014 and then spent one season struggling in FR2.0 before opting for a career with a roof over his head. After Danish Thundersport success he joined NASCAR’s Euro Series in 2019 and won the second tier title. A step up to the main class followed in 2020 and with two race wins he was close runner-up to Day.
His successor as ‘EuroNASCAR 2’ champion was 2013 Auto GP champion Vittorio Ghirelli. His single-seater career was an oddity, spending his first two years in cars in GP3. A side campaign in FR Alps in his second year of racing netted him his first podiums, but then he stepped up to FR3.5 for 2012 and unsurprisingly only scored twice.
The sideways step to Auto GP proved surprisingly successful, beating Kimiya Sato and former F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan to the crown on merit, and was where he earned his first and also last two single-seater wins. The results inspired him to join the GP2 grid halfway through the year, and he did actually score a point, then in 2014 he straddled middling appearances in Auto GP and Indy Lights.
Eventually he let go of his lofty single-seater dreams and made his NASCAR Euro Series debut in 2019. He came third in the second tier, won four races in a row to take the 2020 title and then stepped up to the top class last year. At the same time, he was racing electric Smart cars.