Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David celebrates the 2014 Athlon Sports NASCAR Rookie of the Year, Kyle Larson.
Kyle Larson is going to finish the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with at least a 47.2 percent top-10 finish rate, which is better than the rookie-year rates of Richard Petty (42.9 percent) and Jeff Gordon (36.7). Larson’s 2014 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), a weighted results measurement, will likely finish above the stellar first-year ratings that took place in NASCAR’s current era, such as Ryan Newman (2.264), Carl Edwards (2.222), Kasey Kahne (2.153) and Denny Hamlin (1.986). He’ll soon be named the Cup Series Rookie of the Year for 2014. We at Athlon Sports will happily make him our Rookie of the Year as well.
It’s hard to believe that there were ever cynics of Larson’s immediate impact, but there were.
To make room for Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing jettisoned former Formula One grand prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya, a move that caught many, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., by surprise, despite Montoya’s middling race results for a half-decade that contributed to CGR’s ghastly five wins-in-383 races record dating from 2002 to the beginning of this season. Larson didn’t win, although this weekend’s race at Homestead isn’t out of the question, but he has at least ignited what was a sleepy organization.
Larson’s selection to replace Montoya was questioned because of his lack of wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013 with an entire Turner Scott Motorsports stable that failed, with three total entries, to crack the win column. It was flawed logic from the get-go, because if anyone was really paying attention, the former Dirt Sprint Car standout’s rapid assimilation and dominance had been on full display in front of everyone’s eyes.
He amassed the highest PEER, a 2.932 rating, among Nationwide Series regulars in 2013. He was also the highest-ranking regular in pass efficiency, making 53.42 percent of his pass encounters passes in his favor. Both of those measurements typically translate from Nationwide to Cup and Larson was no exception.
Prior to Homestead, he ranks seventh among all drivers in PEER with a 2.300 rating that’s better than the production of Jimmie Johnson (2.129), Kyle Busch (1.564) and two of the four championship contenders. Only seven drivers have more top-10 finishes than Larson’s 17. His passing has been nothing short of stupendous — he sports an adjusted pass efficiency (APE) for the season (52.96 percent) that ranks fourth among series regulars. Specific to the quad-oval tracks of Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta, the facilities synonymous with modern-day NASCAR, he holds a 54.22 percent APE, which ranks first among all drivers.
It’s reasonable to suggest that Larson is the future of the sport, but statistically, he has already arrived and has started wreaking havoc. There are still some areas that require improving, though.
Hamlin’s status of the being the most recent rookie to qualify for a Chase spot (in 2006) remains intact, even with the number of Chase participants expanding from 12 to 16 this season. Larson’s crashing, something that also translated from the Nationwide Series where he averaged 0.36 crashes per race in 2013, was a hindrance — he holds a 0.37 per race crash frequency through Phoenix. Luckily for the 22-year-old rook, there’s time on his side and a precedent for improvement and a lengthy stay in the sport if we can trust the chronological development of his closest comparison.
In February 2013, I touted Larson as being “as naturally gifted as any driver since Tony Stewart.” In most ways, his is a reincarnation of Stewart’s instinctive ability. To make the leaps that Larson has made — from the stomping grounds of USAC to a win in his first Late Model race to a championship in his first Stock Car season to being this good as a rookie in Nationwide and Cup — one needs the Smoke-like tendency to acclimate quickly. Larson has that. Instead of the take-no-prisoners nature that Stewart, a winner of three races in his first full Cup Series season and a champion as a rookie in IndyCar, displayed early in his career — he led over 40 percent of the race in six of his first nine wins and has averaged a laps-led percentage of 41.5 in wins during the course of his career — Larson’s laps near the front are minimal, but effective. He’s led just 53 laps total in 2014 and has spent just 55.7 percent of his completed laps inside the top 15. Considering his 65.7 percent top-15 finish rate, it’s clear that Larson is picking the right time to make his move. Eventually, that trait will result in wins, especially if Larson is the second coming of the three-time champion and future Hall-of-Famer.
A pint-sized version of Tony Stewart that picks his spots is a dangerous image if you’re a competitor. It’ll be the first time that a bull’s eye, on the hood of Larson’s Target-sponsored Chevrolet, is the symbol of attack, haunting the rearview mirrors of fellow Cup Series drivers.
The NASCAR landscape has never looked better, and this party of parity is about to be crashed by a kid with a once-in-a-generation natural ability. Larson's future is sure to be fun because his present is already staggeringly productive.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.