Reigning Busch Series champion Brian Vickers may be the youngest of the crop, but he will certainly not be taking a back seat when six newcomers to the Nextel Cup begin the battle for honours at Daytona next weekend.

Brendan Gaughan, Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs, Johnny Sauter and Scott Wimmer join Vickers in a six-strong class of 2004 and, according to former champion Jeff Gordon, all stand as good a chance as anyone of pulling off race wins in the coming year.

"I think it's possible for any of them to win a race, it just really depends on the team and equipment that's behind them," Gordon told the Associated Press news agency, "They're all very talented drivers."

Vickers will partner Gordon in the crack Hendrick Motorsports squad this season, and the 20-year old has already staked his claim to possible success by recording top four qualifying positions in the five top flight races he contested at the tail-end of 2003.

"There are a lot of great candidates for the rookie title, [but] we're going to go out there and do our best and get as much experience as possible," Vickers said.

Like Vickers, Riggs also had several teams chasing his signature for 2004, but admits that he almost returned for another crack at the Busch Series.

"I didn't want to go Cup racing unless I felt like I could be competitive," the 33-year old explained, "It's a lot better to be at a lower level and be able to win races."

Riggs eventually plumped for the #10 Valvoline entry previously campaigned by Johnny Benson, perhaps the least fashionable destination among the newcomers, as Sauter (Richard Childress), Kahne (Evernham) and Gaughan (Penske) all line up with proven powerhouses. Only Wimmer, who joins Bill Davis Racing, may have a slimmer chance of recording a victory in 2004.

Kahne, who once tested with Bobby Rahal's CART team, will be mentored this year by veteran Bill Elliott, who steps down to a part season en route to imminent retirement. The youngster will need all the help he can get, too, as he plans to run parallel Nextel Cup and Busch Series programmes.

His effort will be mirrored among the rookie by Sauter, who teams up with the abrasive pairing of Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon at RCR. Harvick, however, should prove to be a good yardstick for the newcomer, having won a couple of races in his debut season, after replacing the recently-deceased Dale Earnhardt in the Goodwrench entry in 2001. However, he is expecting no favours from either of his team-mates.

"I'm not going to comment on those two and what they've done in the past," Sauter said, "If it comes down to a shootout, I would expect them to do the same thing that I would do to them to win the race."

Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Matt Kenseth, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray all won within the first year of their respective careers in recent seasons, and whichever of the class of 2004 joins them will be adding his name to a pretty illustrious list.



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