NASCAR Nationwide Series: Danica Patrick and 7 Drivers Who Will Be in Cup Soon
There's little beating around the bush on this one—no matter how well Danica Patrick does in the Nationwide Series throughout the end of the 2011 season and likely all of the 2012 campaign, there's little doubt that a limited Sprint Cup slate will be part of her next contract.
There are also a vast amount of young drivers in the Nationwide Series who will probably reach NASCAR's top circuit sooner rather than later.
Here's a look at seven drivers who will be in the Sprint Cup Series before long.
In a perfect world, this slideshow would have Trevor Bayne as part of the title.
However, since he hasn't won a race since the Daytona 500 upset, Danica Patrick got the nod.
If Roush Fenway Racing or Wood Brothers Racing doesn't promote Bayne into a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2012, there will be a long line of suitors waiting to sign this precocious 20-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Bayne has missed five races on the Nationwide level due to an undisclosed illness, but he's tallied three Top Fives and eight Top 10s in 15 races this season.
Did I mention he won the Daytona 500 in February?
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
At this point a year ago, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.'s future at Roush Fenway Racing was in doubt.
Stenhouse and teammate Colin Braun were both supposed to run the entire 35-race schedule, but struggles limited Braun to 24 races and a release from RFR.
Stenhouse lost just three races.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Stenhouse has looked mighty impressive in the No. 6 Ford.
He tallied a win at Iowa—his first in Nationwide action—last May, and has eight Top Fives and 15 Top 10s this season.
He's been very competitive against the Cup regulars on a week-by-week basis, and finished 11th in his first Cup start in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford at the Coke 600.
In theory, Justin Allgaier should already be in the Sprint Cup Series by now.
A product of Penske Racing's driver development system, Allgaier ran the No. 12 Dodge in the Nationwide Series from 2009 to 2010, scoring one win at Bristol in March 2010.
Arguably the top Nationwide-only driver on the circuit last season, he was released by the team after sponsor Verizon decided to focus their resources on Penske's IndyCar operation.
Allgaier landed at Turner Motorsports and the No. 31 Chevy this season, and he's been impressive yet again.
He won a fuel-mileage battle in Chicagoland last June, and he has six Top Fives and 10 Top 10s this season.
If there are hard-luck losers in life, Aric Almirola's had a hard-luck career.
A product of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, the Cuban-American caught the eye of Joe Gibbs Racing, who signed him as a developmental driver.
Almirola ran limited slates in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck levels in 2005-2007, with a win to his credit in June 2007 at the Milwaukee Mile.
He originally started the race that day in the No. 20 Chevrolet, but sponsor Rockwell Automation wanted Denny Hamlin in the car, and he took over mid-race.
From there, Almirola replaced Regan Smith in splitting time with Mark Martin at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the No. 8 Chevy in 2008—a ride he was to take over full-time the next season at the Sprint Cup level.
After funding dried up in the 2009 season, Almirola joined Billy Ballew Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series. Last season, he won two races in June—Dover and Michigan.
Almirola's success at that level brought him a stint at Richard Petty Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series after Kasey Kahne vacated the No. 9 Ford late last season, as well as a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports this season.
Almirola's been solid in the No. 88 Chevy, with three Top Fives and 10 Top 10s to his credit.
The son of NASCAR great/ESPN broadcaster Rusty Wallace, Steve Wallace hasn't been the most impressive driver on the Nationwide circuit.
For proof, just ask anyone who has been the victim of one of his frequent errors over the past few years.
Money talks, however, so expect Rusty and the team's current sponsors to eventually put something together to get Steven in a Cup car in the next couple of seasons. (His run at Daytona this past year is probably a preview of that.)
This season, Wallace has one Top Five and three Top 10s in 20 races.
A former member of Bill Davis Racing's developmental program, Michael Annett has quietly put together a solid resume over the years.
After spending the last two seasons with Germain Racing's No. 15 Toyota—collecting six Top 10s in 70 races—Annett may have just hit his stride in the No. 62 Chevy for Rusty Wallace Racing.
He has five Top 10s this season, with a best finish of sixth at Daytona earlier this month.
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times.
She's got the appeal sponsors like GoDaddy.com want in a driver.
She's going to have the sponsorship money to make her appealing to major teams (like JR Motorsports right now).
With her being expected to run full time in Nationwide next season, NASCAR would love to have her in a competitive Sprint Cup ride sooner rather than later.
Statistics aside, Danica will be in the Sprint Cup Series very soon.
Thoughts? Comment below.