Here's a touchy subject if there ever was one—determining whether or not a driver "deserves" to race at the Sprint Cup level or not. It's a subjective thing, one that may or may not involve accidentally insulting folks' livelihoods without comprehending the backstories they had to overcome to make it to the top.
Let's be real here: The majority of these drivers earned their shot to be competitive at NASCAR's national level. In the right equipment, and at the right level, just about every one of them could be successful, contending for race wins or championships. Many of them have.
In fact, a lot of these drivers have struggled in Cup primarily because they weren't ready for it when they debuted. Many of them had rides with prestigious teams that they simply couldn't pass up, but as a result, they did long-term damage to their careers by failing to perform. Unreasonable expectations don't help, but neither does walking into the wrong situation.
That being said, with an incredibly talented crop of young drivers on the way up—from Roush Fenway Racing's Trevor Bayne, to the Dillon brothers at Richard Childress Racing, to the entire Turner Motorsports driver lineup—it shouldn't be a shock if some of these drivers are out of Cup completely within the next couple of years:
David Gilliland won a single Busch Series race with an underfunded team in June 2006. But because so many development drivers on better teams had bombed in the mid-2000s, he got rushed to the Cup Series before he was ready—just two months later, with the then-declining Yates Racing.
He never really settled in before the team folded after 2008 and hasn't had a high-profile ride since. As many strides as Front Row Motorsports has made in recent years, they still had a habit of shuffling drivers around their cars in order to try to keep everybody in the top 35, which also prevented drivers from developing a rapport with their crew chiefs.
That being said, Gilliland is a great superspeedway driver who can always be expected to run toward the front at Daytona and Talladega.
After one full season in the Busch Series, where he finished 11th in points, Joe Gibbs Racing promoted J.J. Yeley to the Cup level in 2006 to replace Bobby Labonte in the iconic No. 18 car.
He ran full schedules at both levels for the next two years and struggled, never winning a race and only scoring one top five in Cup with Gibbs; his 2007 Busch season with Phoenix Racing was particularly disastrous, as he only had one top-10 in 30 starts.
After being fired from Hall of Fame Racing in 2008, Yeley's career has been marred by starting and parking. He's another case of a mid-2000s driver who was promoted before he was ready and has struggled ever since, especially in comparison to ex-teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished third in points as a rookie in 2006. Yeley, meanwhile, ranked 29th.
It's too bad that Michael McDowell can't get himself into a full-time Nationwide ride with Joe Gibbs Racing, because his limited starts with them have been pretty strong. In 11 starts the past two seasons, he has nine top-10s and a pole at Road America in 2011—a pretty solid resume all told.
But McDowell's been pigeonholed as a start-and-parker at the Sprint Cup level, and it's partially because his 2008 season with the admittedly subpar Michael Waltrip Racing was a struggle.
Despite the spectacular crash he had in Texas qualifying, McDowell didn't actually tear up a lot of equipment, he just didn't do much to stand out. He also didn't impress after replacing Kyle Busch at JGR at Texas in 2011, finishing outside of the top 30 in his best opportunity to date.
Jumping straight to Cup from ARCA may not have been the best long-term move, and part of the reason why he's not fielding many calls outside of Phil Parsons' team.
Paul Menard is proof that any driver—provided that they can keep writing enough checks to maintain a ride—can actually develop into somebody competitive with enough time spent at the Sprint Cup level.
In the past three years, he's scored one win and 23 top-10s with Richard Petty Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing, and improved his position in the points every season, peaking at 16th last year.
But Menard hasn't run three Cup seasons—he's run six. His numbers in the first three were brutal: two top-10s, six DNQs and average finishes of worse than 25th each year. It also took him three seasons of Busch Series racing, in which he scored one victory, to earn a promotion to the Cup level.
He's a dark-horse threat to make the Chase these days, but any other driver would've been given up on long ago with those statistics.
Reed Sorenson was one of the few rookie drivers in 2006 who didn't seem rushed to the Cup level, after winning two Busch races and even briefly leading the points for Chip Ganassi in 2005. But Ganassi's Busch team and Cup team were two different animals. After three seasons there, one with Richard Petty Motorsports and a period substituting for Brian Vickers at Team Red Bull, Sorenson never really settled in at the Cup level.
Why not? In 159 starts from 2006 to 2010, Sorenson scored only five top-five finishes and 15 top-10s, far behind fellow rookies from the 2006 class like Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
But perhaps it's also because his driving style is better suited to Nationwide cars, as he has 85 top-10s in 171 starts and contended for the 2011 championship despite being fired and taking on an underfunded ride late in the season.
Perhaps skipping the Nationwide level wasn't the best idea for Travis Kvapil, who nonetheless remains one of the top Camping World Truck Series drivers of all time. He's won nine races and the 2003 championship there, finishing in the top 10 a stunning 22 times in 25 starts during his championship season.
But he jumped from Trucks to Cup in 2005 with the subpar third Penske Racing team, and was dropped for Sam Hornish Jr. after crashing out of five races and finishing 33rd in points. Then he bounced around between other teams on the verge of closure the next few years, and never again had reasonably strong equipment to show his talent in.
BK Racing could have other driver options for 2013, so he may be replaced there.
This one is a tough argument to make, because David Reutimann was the best thing that Michael Waltrip Racing had going for it in its early years. In their miserable 2007 debut with Toyota, he qualified for more races than either of his teammates, 1999 champion Dale Jarrett (24) or Waltrip (14).
He also scored the team's first two Sprint Cup wins, at Charlotte in 2009 and Kentucky in 2010. And he wasn't rushed to the top, either, after top-three points finishes in Trucks and Nationwide in consecutive seasons.
But Reutimann took a quantum leap back in Cup points in 2011, falling from 18th to 28th and losing his ride in the process. While replacements Mark Martin and Brian Vickers shined, Reutimann was maligned for stalling on-track at Martinsville and never got into a rhythm after bouncing from team to team in 2012.
Granted, he was let go so late in 2011 that there weren't many quality rides left, but the competitive portion of his Sprint Cup career might be over now that he's no longer a Waltrip driver.
Before Danica Patrick's legions of fans come out to defend her, saying that she hasn't even had a chance to prove herself in Cup yet, let's qualify this one.
The honest truth is that while her career accomplishments are very impressive for a female driver in a male-dominated sport, her statistics aren't much to write home about if you look at them without the name attached. Her only IndyCar win came in 2008 with a short field due to fuel mileage, and she never really broke out in Nationwide last year the way people expected her to.
There are a lot of complex factors at play against her—the way JR Motorsports handled her debut, a revolving door of crew chiefs, media pressure on a level most other drivers will never understand—but the consensus is that her move to Sprint Cup might be a year or two premature.
Only the spiteful want to see Patrick fail, but if she really isn't ready, it might happen.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.