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Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Updated: August 22, 1:20 PM ET
The race is on to make Cup hay

By Brant James
ESPN.com

Brian Vickers returned to the Nationwide Series seeking a toe hold from which to push back into Sprint Cup.

It worked.

The 29-year-old was announced this week as the new full-time occupant of the No. 55 Sprint Cup Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing and will begin an immediate work-study program as Mark Martin was allowed to replace the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet.

Vickers' return to NASCAR's top series is the type of successful graduation the sport's second-tier developmental circuit needs and is designed to produce. But as negotiation, speculation and cogitation over 2014 openings and potential openings heighten at the culmination of summer, it remains unclear how many will join Vickers in the class of 2013.

Coming to the Nationwide series with preexisting connections, or on the precipice of potential opportunity is obviously helpful, suggesting that former truck series champion Austin Dillon and rookie Kyle Larson might have an advantage over drivers currently ahead of them in the Nationwide standings, such as Regan Smith and points leader Sam Hornish Jr.

San Hornish Jr.
San Hornish Jr. is leading the Nationwide Series standings, but is it going to be enough to get him back into Sprint Cup?

Vickers' situation has been unique since the outset and those circumstances aided his return to a Cup series where he was three wins -- one this year for MWR -- in 272 races over 11 seasons and a best points finish of 12th in 2009.

A prodigy signed by Hendrick Motorsports at the urging of the late Ricky Hendrick -- son and namesake of the team owner -- Vickers became the youngest to win a top-three NASCAR series title when he captured the Nationwide crown in 2003.

He advanced to Hendrick's powerhouse Cup program full-time in 2004 as teammates of four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and imminent five-time victor Jimmie Johnson. He left in 2007, however, to become the tenured driver at fledgling Red Bull Racing, but a blood clot disorder nearly ended his career in 2010, and the team dissolved within a year of his return.

"There weren't many good rides available," Vickers said. "There were a couple of opportunities but nothing I was really excited about, and then the chance with [Michael Waltrip Racing] came available."

Fortuitously for Vickers, he was able to form a relationship with MWR that led to partial Cup schedules the past two seasons sharing a car with Martin and accepted an offer from Joe Gibbs Racing to contest a full 2013 Nationwide slate. He will drive the No. 55 Toyota for MWR in the Cup race at Bristol a day after continuing his quest for a second Nationwide title in the No. 20 JGR Toyota.

Vickers enters the Nationwide race (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) in fifth place, 18 points behind leader Hornish

Those likely to follow Vickers up the ladder have similar helping hands reaching out. Dillon, who is fourth in Nationwide points, 15 out, is considered a likely candidate to replace veteran Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing, which is owned by his grandfather.

Justin Allgaier, who is sixth in points in his fifth full Nationwide campaign, could have a pathway to Cup open before him and his sponsor, Brandt, as Harry Scott , co-owner of his Turner Scott Motorsports team, has reportedly purchased Phoenix Racing, and could put him in the No. 51 Chevrolet for the final 10 Cup races of the season.

A wild card could be Allgaier's TSM teammate, Larson, a 21-year-old who has five top-5s and 12 top-10s in what has been a heavily anticipated and ultimately productive rookie season. Under contract with Earnhardt Ganassi, he could be tabbed to replace Juan Pablo Montoya, who will not return to the team next season.

Hornish, 34, a three-time IndyCar champion and team owner Roger Penske have had a mutually loyal relationship through a NASCAR career beset by performance and then sponsor woes before Hornish blossomed in Nationwide the past two seasons. After seven seasons in stock cars, he appears primed for the step to Sprint Cup he attempted prematurely in 2008, but Penske in 2011 streamlined to two full-time cars, which are occupied by defending champion Brad Keselowski and team newcomer Joey Logano. Hornish said he has seen no indication of the team's 2014 plans for him.

Smith, 29, and Hornish could face more difficult journeys back to Sprint Cup.

Smith returned to Nationwide full-time this season after six seasons in Cup, also determined to push back on the momentum of a series championship or impressive statistical performance.

He has proved himself with a refocused JR Motorsports so far, claiming two of the just four wins this season by Nationwide regulars, posting five top-5s and 14 top-10s and leading the standings for 10 of 22 weeks. He is currently third in points, 15 off the lead. One possible pathway, or at least one Smith has tread, could be Furniture Row Racing, where he worked four seasons -- winning its only race at Darlington in 2011 -- as the team could lose Kurt Busch after this season to another team. Busch told ESPN.com he has multiple offers.

"The priority right now is to win races and win the title. That's the goal and that's the only thing that is in my mind right now," Smith said. "Outside of that, yeah, I have aspirations of getting back to Cup. I'd be lying if I said I didn't. That is my long-term goal.

"I want to prove I belong in that series and I can be the best in that series. But in order to do that I feel like going out and winning in the Nationwide series and winning races and hopefully winning this championship, hopefully that is a step to being able to go prove that at the next level. That was the reasoning for everything, basically."

The missing element for many remains opportunity.