NASCAR: The 5 Best Nationwide Series Drivers Who Should Be in Sprint Cup

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2012

NASCAR: The 5 Best Nationwide Series Drivers Who Should Be in Sprint Cup

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    The Nationwide Series has lost both Danica Patrick and two-time champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., with both drivers moving up to full-time Sprint Cup rides in 2013.

    However, there are still quite a few great drivers remaining in NASCAR's junior league, and they'll likely see an uptick in exposure and performance with Stenhouse and Patrick gone.

    The NNS has been a great feeder system for the Sprint Cup Series over the years. And while there have been some peaks and valleys when it comes to drivers potentially moving up over the last few years, we think you'll see several NNS drivers make the jump to the Cup circuit by 2014—if not sooner—as a potential replacement driver for a team whose driver may struggle during the first part of the 2013 season.

    We thought we'd take a look at some of the Nationwide Series' best drivers and see who we feel are the top five picks to soon be in Sprint Cup racing.

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Elliott Sadler

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    You have to give Elliott Sadler a lot of credit. When he was faced with lemons, having lost his full-time Sprint Cup ride a few years back, he made sweet-tasting lemonade by moving back down to the Nationwide Series.

    Granted, it was a bit of a comedown after a number of years on the Cup circuit, but that's not the way Sadler looked at it. Rather, he viewed the positive, that it was an opportunity for him to keep racing, keep his name visible and to potentially work his way back into a full-time Cup ride.

    Sadler has been outstanding in the NNS series, coming close to winning the championship each of the last two seasons. And he'll be back again in 2013, but with a different team, moving over from Richard Childress Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he'll team up with Brian Vickers (who we talk about in the next slide).

    Sadler has just too much talent to remain in the NNS series. We predict that he'll be back in Sprint Cup full-time in 2014, right after he wins the NNS championship in 2013.

Brian Vickers

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    Much like Elliott Sadler, Brian Vickers has gone back to the Nationwide Series to try to rebuild his career somewhat. With only a part-time Cup ride for Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will join Sadler as teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing for the entire 2013 Nationwide Series schedule.

    And, although they'll face some tough competition, particularly from Austin Dillon and Justin Allgaier, how much do you want to bet that Sadler and Vickers finish 1-2 in the final Nationwide standings?

    Call it a gut feeling, but not only do we think a 2013 ride in the Nationwide Series will lead to a 2014 full-time Sprint Cup ride for Sadler, we think the same will likely happen for Vickers as well.

    They're both too talented to keep that talent bottled up on the Nationwide circuit.

Austin Dillon

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    This could be a very interesting season for Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress. Not only will it be his second full-time season in the Nationwide Series, it likely will be his last season on the NNS.

    For, if everything goes to plan, Dillon will jump up to the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2014. And, if the rumors are to be believed, he'll be driving the legendary black No. 3 Chevrolet that has not been driven since the tragic death of the late Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

    Dillon was very competitive on the NNS circuit in 2012 and we expect him to be even more so in 2013. He's proven to be a natural behind the wheel in a very short period of time, including winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series championship.

    Trust me, Dillon is a superstar in the making. He's been raised right, tutored right and drives right.  In fact, we could easily see him emulate Brad Keselowski and win a Cup championship in either his third or fourth full-time season.

    And driving that fabled No. 3 will only add to the growing Dillon legacy.

    Much like Sadler and Vickers, Dillon's talent will be too valuable to waste in the Nationwide Series for more than one more season.

    Plus, don't forget, there'll be at least one vacancy on the RCR Cup side of things in 2014 when Kevin Harvick moves to Stewart Haas Racing. Exit Harvick, enter Dillon.

    That's how it works sometimes in Cup racing.

Sam Hornish Jr.

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    Sam Hornish Jr. is one of the most talented race car drivers we've ever seen.

    A former Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champ, Hornish has been a good soldier for Roger Penske the last several seasons, but we get the feeling that 2013 will be a very pivotal year for the Defiance, Ohio native.

    If Penske doesn't find a way to get Hornish back behind the wheel of a Cup car full-time in 2014, we suspect the guy with the best sideburns in NASCAR to take his talents to another team. And given his resume, we don't think Hornish would be short of potential takers.

    Hornish has done everything Penske has asked him and never complained. That's the sign of true loyalty.

    But at the same time, Sam's not getting any younger. And given that Joey Logano is taking over the No. 22 ride in 2013, a seat that many observers felt Hornish should have permanently filled as a reward for his loyalty, it's only logical that if Logano left Joe Gibbs Racing to go to Penske Racing, then maybe it may soon be time for Hornish to leave Penske and go somewhere else for a Cup ride in 2014.

    There could potentially be several seats open by the end of 2013, including at least one at Roush Fenway Racing, from some of the speculation that's out there.

    And there might also be room for him at either Richard Childress Racing or the team we consider perhaps the biggest darkhorse to acquire Hornish's considerable talents, namely Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

    Joining forces with Chip Ganassi would be a natural for Hornish.

    But one way or other, look for Hornish to have a strong 2013 NNS campaign—hopefully his last season on that circuit—and then see what his options are come 2014.

Justin Allgaier

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    We expect Allgaier's last season in the Nationwide Series will be 2013. With the expectation that several Cup seats will become available in 2014, we'd be shocked if Allgaier doesn't get a full-time Cup ride for that season.

    Until then, though, we think Allgaier will be one of the top challengers for the 2013 Nationwide Series championship. He not only has a wealth of talent, he has developed an innate sense of car control that will serve him especially well when he makes the jump to Sprint Cup.

    Allgaier also is a great pitchman for potential sponsors, meaning he's the total package of a driver and a great image for a major company that would want to endorse him.

    All he needs is just one more year of seasoning on the Nationwide circuit and he'll be ready to become the next member of the next generation of Sprint Cup drivers.