NASCAR's minor league is quickly stepping out of the shadow of the Sprint Cup and making a name for itself. With exciting races and more and more Cup drivers taking on full-time rides in NASCAR's "lesser" series, the level of talent in the series is undeniable.
It seems as if every race comes down to the wire, for numerous reasons. The parity between the Nationwide regulars and the Cup drivers is becoming more and more apparent. Which means, of course, that the young drivers in the series are getting more and more talented. It's only a matter of time before some of them rise into the Cup ranks and feast on the competition there.
Looking into the future, which current Nationwide full-timer will become the next Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski? Who will graduate into NASCAR's premier series and compete at a high level? It all depends on on-track success, landing a solid ride and a little thing called talent.
Since joining the Nationwide series last year, Austin Dillon has taken the Nationwide series by storm, posting the most top-10 finishes of any full-time driver and finishing third in the standings. In 2012, Dillon posted two wins, both at Kentucky, and finished in the top 10 a whopping 27 times. Not bad for a "kid."
Looking ahead, Dillon already has his ride for the 2014 Sprint Cup Season, as he will continue to drive for his grandaddy, Richard Childress. He is slated to be Kevin Harvick's replacement, as Harvick is moving on to pilot Stewart-Haas Racing's fourth car in 2014.
Rumors are swirling about what car number Dillon will have, but it is pretty apparent he will be replacing Harvick. In an article by the Sporting News' Bob Pockrass, Richard Childress didn't rule out the possibility of Dillon piloting the iconic No. 3, which hasn't seen a Cup race since the 2001 Daytona 500 and Dale Earnhardt's death:
There is consideration that someday we may end up running a 3 in Cup with him. It’s not going to be popular with everybody, but so many of the fans, after seeing it on this car, love it and ask for it back.
Dillon has the full support of his grandfather, so there's no issue of securing a solid ride. What makes Dillon a hot commodity, besides his obvious talent, is his marketability, as he already has several high-profile sponsors.
In 2017, look for Austin Dillon to easily make the Chase. He'll have a ride with a top-flight team, sponsorship backing and a couple years of experience. And don't be surprised if he challenges the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch for the Sprint Cup. He's that good.
Kyle Larson's 2013 Nationwide Series season began with a bang.
At the series' opening race at Daytona, the checkered flag dropped with Larson's engine sitting on the wrong side of the catch fence and his car a mangled piece of shrapnel. Since then, however, Larson has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series, posting finishes of 13th, 32nd (accident), sixth and second.
He is currently in the Earnhardt Ganassi driver development program and drives for Turner Scott Racing in the Nationwide Series. While there are no current plans to move him to the Cup Series (he has yet to run a full season in any of the major three NASCAR series), if Larson continues to develop, that will quickly change.
Watching videos of Larson's driving, it is evident he possesses an exceptional amount of car control, which not only helps his track performance, but saves his equipment—something an owner loves. Watching him drive is like watching a young Mark Martin.
Larson may not yet be a household name, but after battling Kyle Busch for the win at Bristol, he proved he has what it takes to compete with the top talents in the sport. He also has a bit of aggression in him, which can only serve him well as long as he toes the line.
While it may be a bit early to declare Larson a potential Cup champion, the talent is there for him to participate in the Chase in 2017.
It may be a bit surprising to see Regan Smith on this list—and for good reason. Smith has exceptional talent inside the race car, but he has never truly been able to prove it.
For the first time, he picked up a full-time ride in a Nationwide car in 2013, which was a great career move. Several other former full-time Cup drivers have gone down to Nationwide. Brian Vickers, Elliot Sadler and Sam Hornish Jr. have all been demoted to the series and are finding success this year. However, Smith is different than those three.
He never really had a top-tier ride in Cup.
Vickers drove for Hendrick, Sadler drove for Robert Yates (when it was still a powerful program) and Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Hornish piloted a Roger Penske ride for several years.
Smith, meanwhile, has driven full-time for Furniture Row Racing and Phoenix Racing. Suffice it to say, he hasn't had the best opportunities. He did have a part-time gig with Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2012 filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he preformed admirably. But it's always difficult to perform as a short-term fill-in driver.
Smith may get another chance in Cup. At this point, there are no rumors about him possibly moving up. However, if the 30-year-old lands a solid ride, Regan Smith is a name that could very well appear in the Chase in 2017.