Future Sprint Cup Prospects for Top 10 Current Nationwide Drivers
Since NASCAR implemented its rule against drivers running for points at multiple levels, the Nationwide Series has once again become a proving ground in the standings for drivers who want to make it to the Sprint Cup, instead of a testing ground for existing Cup drivers.
The driver roster resembles more closely what it was in the past: a mix of young upstarts looking to move up, ex-Cup drivers looking to turn it around, and a few series lifers who have found a decent home there regardless of the potential to move on.
Through the first half of this year's schedule, there's a solid mix of all three types of drivers in the top 10 in the championship. The trick is figuring out which driver is which. Here's your handy guide as to who might be moving up and who will be back next year.
Smith's game plan has been to use this year in Nationwide as a way to re-establish himself to Cup teams, and so far it's working. With JR Motorsports, he has two race wins in 15 starts. Smith's limited runs with Phoenix Racing have also been moderately successful (two top-10 finishes in six starts).
If he wins the title and doesn't have a full-time Cup ride again next year, it will only be because there is a lack of quality employment.
Sam Hornish Jr.
The good news for Hornish is that he has team owner Roger Penske's loyalty when it comes to fielding a third Sprint Cup car alongside those of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
The bad news is that the sponsors just haven't materialized yet. Having downsized to two cars per series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and IndyCar), Penske's focus is on producing front-runners with smaller teams, not potentially spreading his organization too thin.
Truth be told, Allgaier may never have the chance to make the leap into Sprint Cup. He's a great Nationwide driver, but when a driver never finishes better than sixth in points in four full-time seasons and has never gotten so much as a start-and-park ride in Cup, the window of opportunity may have already shut.
The exception, of course, is if Allgaier's co-owner Harry Scott buys Phoenix Racing, as has been rumored. Then we might have a chance at seeing what Allgaier can do.
Sadler's step back into Nationwide was meant to follow the same path as Smith's: win a title, reinforce his driving abilities and get back into Cup the next year.
Well, this is the third year of Sadler's Sprint Cup exile, and the ex-Chase driver hasn't won that title yet. Two years of heartbreak in his rides with Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress preceded this year's signing with Joe Gibbs, and while fourth in points is nice and a handful of Cup races are even nicer, nobody is talking about Sadler in a full-time gig next year.
Dillon is the future at Richard Childress Racing and everyone knows it. Though Paul Menard and Jeff Burton will both return, the No. 29 seat remains open with Kevin Harvick's departure, and rumors of Ryan Newman notwithstanding, it's likely Dillon's seat to lose.
The only question is whether or not he'll run the No. 3, which hasn't been used in Cup since Dale Earnhardt's passing in 2001. (Bet on it happening.)
Larson is the next Joey Logano, an incredible young talent whose team (in this case, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) faces the threat of moving him up into Sprint Cup too quickly because of a potential open seat.
The key difference is this: while Logano replaced Tony Stewart, Larson could either replace Jamie McMurray or Juan Montoya, two names that inspire a little less reverence in NASCAR circles. Expectations for the team would be somewhat lower, though a rush job on Larson's development could still be detrimental to his career long-term.
Kligerman is a former Penske Racing prospect whose work for Kyle Busch Motorsports so far has been nothing short of impressive—an average finish of 12.6 in 15 starts in his first year of full Nationwide competition is nothing to sneeze at. He's also done the most important thing that a young driver needs to do in a development series: keep the car clean (2662 of 2677 laps completed so far this year).
Give him a few years, and he'll get a chance.
Vickers is the obvious choice to drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota next year, if Waltrip himself gets his way.
He's done a great job over the past two seasons filling in for Mark Martin during the races that Martin takes off, with six top-10 finishes in 12 starts since joining MWR and a seventh while substituting for Denny Hamlin. The only obstacle is selling enough sponsorship to seal the deal (note that Aaron's has not yet committed to Vickers in any commercials).
Scott has had his moments, including two Camping World Truck Series victories and two consecutive top-10 points finishes in Nationwide. But without a signature win, and as a driver whose sponsorship reach hasn't too often extended outside of his home state of Idaho, the prospects don't look great right now.
The former Daytona 500 winner already has a part-time Sprint Cup ride with the Wood Brothers, but if he's able to put it together in Nationwide the same way that predecessor Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did in 2011 and 2012, Roush Fenway Racing will likely promote him sometime in the next few years.
The season has been up and down for Bayne, but after winning at Iowa, he's at least proved that he's still a winner. And with Travis Pastrana still a few years away, a fourth RFR ride is Bayne's to lose.
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