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At 25, Keselowski is cream of the NASCAR crop


With the Cup Series off last week (click here for the Power Rankings after Texas), SI decided to take a look at some of the drivers you might see wheeling a Cup car in the near future. Currently successful in some of the sport's lower-tier divisions, this list of young talent has the potential to be the next wave of Kyle Busches, Jimmie Johnsons, and Carl Edwards in just a few short years. Take a look at the top 10 prospects we see coming down the pike at this point in 2009.

1. Brad Keselowski

He's been Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s driver for the last two Nationwide Series seasons, and it's no longer a question of if Keselowski will move up to Cup full-time, but when.

Initially slated to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 car, Keselowski may be in line for other opportunities (Penske?) if Martin chooses to return for all 36 races in 2010. In the meantime, the 25-year-old's primary focus remains winning his first Nationwide Series title. With two consecutive third-place finishes, he's moved up to fifth in points, and hopes to challenge "Cupwhackers" Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards on top of the charts.

Keselowski has already shown flashes of how good he'll be when the time comes to move up. Driving a seven-race Cup schedule with a fifth Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, he scored a 23rd-place finish at Texas to outpace all other freshmen in the field. It's clear Joey Logano would have some serious competition for this year's Rookie of the Year battle if his rival were competing against him full-time.

2. Justin Allgaier

Last year's ARCA Series champion, Allgaier is turning heads just six races into a full-time Nationwide Series stint with Roger Penske. Already armed with three top-5 finishes, he's leading the rookie points while placing seventh in the overall season standings. The buzz around the garage is that this kid has a little something special Penske hasn't seen since hiring "Rocket" Ryan Newman to drive his cars back in late 2000... and we all know how well that worked out.

With solid backing from Verizon (at least in the Nationwide Series), expect this 22-year-old to position himself to move up in 2010 if two of Penske's three Cup drivers -- David Stremme and Sam Hornish, Jr. -- continue to struggle.

3. Stephen Leicht

An 11th-place finish at Nashville in his 2009 Nationwide Series debut was hardly the run Leicht was looking for, but don't be surprised if you hear this 22-year-old's name called in Cup races for Richard Childress in two seasons. After working spot duty for RCR in 2008 -- running five starts in an underfunded car -- Leicht was given a limited schedule in the team's No. 29 Holiday Inn Chevrolet, which has won at least one race every year in that division since 2004.

Sharing the ride with Cup stars Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, Leicht will be given top-flight equipment and every opportunity to run up front. And should Leicht succeed, well, Casey Mears isn't exactly lighting the world on fire in RCR's No. 07 Cup car, is he?

4. Ricky Carmichael

The former motocross champ is a marketer's dream, but Ricky Carmichael was expected to have a rough transition from two wheels to four this season. Turns out that's not the case, as his Truck Series ride at Kevin Harvick, Inc. has already produced one top 10 and several more promising runs in four starts.

There's already a push within the company to make Carmichael's limited schedule a full-time affair, making him a top contender to win Rookie of the Year in that division. And with KHI already possessing a top-flight Nationwide Series program, there's room for Carmichael to move up to the sport's "AAA" level as soon as this season if he continues to excel.

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5. Kelly Bires

After being passed by Bires in the closing laps at Nashville last Saturday, Carl Edwards commented on how this phenom needs to have a full-time ride. Like too many development drivers these days, Bires was victimized by sponsorship issues. He became a free agent in January, despite six top-10 finishes in the Nationwide Series last year. And since he was released so late in the game, it's been difficult for the Wisconsin native to find anything else.

He's hung around with start-and-park rides and underfunded equipment, driving anything he could get his hands on before the one-race opportunity with Kevin Harvick's team at Nashville. And boy, did Bires make the most of it, finishing fourth and turning heads with his ability to compete with Edwards, Busch and Logano up front. It's too early to tell if that run will lead to better rides, but it's clear this 25-year-old has the potential to excel if given the right opportunity.

6. Marc Davis

He may be part of a small, family-owned team, but make no mistake: Marc Davis is the best positioned of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity class to excel. As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, Joe Gibbs Racing equipment and support should serve Davis well as the 18-year-old transitions into the sport's second-tier division. Marc's father, Harry, plans to bring his son along the right way, easing him into competition as both funding and experience permits. But with four Cup starts planned for Davis later this season -- beginning at Infineon in a few short months -- you know where this kid would like to head in 2011 or 2012. And with NASCAR without a full-time African-American driver in the Cup Series, there are a lot of people rooting for this teenager to come out on top.

7. James Buescher

Buescher is a quiet, unassuming 19-year-old who has yet to even score a top-10 finish in five career Truck Series starts. But give the Texas native time and he'll be right up there in the Rookie of the Year battle before 2009 is in the books. Buescher drove a limited schedule of Nationwide Series starts last year and did fairly well, scoring one top-10 finish for Braun Racing. Now paired with 50-year-old veteran teammate Rick Crawford for his full-time ride in the trucks, Buescher has a great teacher -- putting him in position to earn the Cup ride Crawford deserved but never got.

8. Chad McCumbee

Back in January, it looked like McCumbee would be competing for Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series for Petty Enterprises. But when Petty's team was forced to merge, the youngster was the odd man out in a shuffle that eventually saw his ride land in A.J. Allmendinger's lap. Coming so close and losing out could have been devastating; instead, McCumbee went back to basics with an underdog team sharing a similar mentality: fight for your survival.

SS-Green Light Racing is so underfunded, it actually uses a second team to start and park just so it has the funding to make it to the next race. But you couldn't tell that by the way McCumbee drives on the track; two top-10 finishes in four starts leave him eighth in points this season. It's the right move for a driver in position to earn himself a second chance at the top.

9. Brian Ickler

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Brian who? He he has just one start under his belt in any of NASCAR's top three divisions, but that's about to change. Tapped by Kyle Busch to share his ride in NASCAR's Truck Series, the San Diego native plans a limited schedule in top-flight equipment starting at Kansas at the end of April.

Busch and Ickler share a few similarities (both are 24-year-old West Coast natives), but perhaps the most important one is running up front. Ickler led NASCAR's Camping World East Series in wins and laps led in 2008, just one year removed from a similar performance in Camping World West. The Truck Series is a huge step up competition-wise, but Ickler will have all the tools in place to make his transition smooth.

10. Scott Lagasse, Jr

Very quietly, Lagasse's been putting together impressive runs as a rookie in the Nationwide Series. Driving a CJM Racing Toyota, he's scored two top 10s and five top-20 finishes to place ninth in the overall season standings. Support from Joe Gibbs Racing was supposed to improve his single-car operation -- but not this quickly -- putting the son of former road course standout Scott Lagasse closer to the front of talent radar screens.

Keeping the car in one piece has been key to the younger's development. Freshmen in NASCAR's second-tier division are known for tearing up equipment, but Lagasse's kept his car off the wall since a potentially devastating crash at Daytona in the season opener.