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 compares the drivers in this year’s rookie class to the rookie seasons of active NASCAR competitors.
There isn’t an age limit for rookies in NASCAR. Greg Biffle was a 32-year-old rookie. Joey Logano was 19. Both were participants in last year’s Chase. In terms of development and readiness, there isn’t one right answer. Because of this, comparing drivers in style, traits and results can be tricky.
This year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class has completed eight races and gets a well-deserved weekend off. Now might be as good of a time as any to reach for the always-loved, yet harder-than-you’d-expect-to-make driver comparisons.
For the sake of the exercise, I’m throwing out age, style and traits and focusing solely on the results our current rookie crop has amassed through the first eight races. The drill is to find an active NASCAR driver with a similar first eight races in their rookie season. While I don’t believe one driver’s start foreshadows the career of another, I do think it represents an individual benchmark of sorts for the rookie in question. Also, it’s fun. Sometimes we should just write, say and do things because they’re fun.
Kyle Larson is 1993 Jeff Gordon
A lofty comparison, but the two former USACers started their Cup Series careers in similar fashion. In 1993, Gordon burst onto the mainstream racing scene with a win in his qualifying race at Daytona and four finishes of eighth or better in his first eight points-paying races (the other four races ended with a crash or a mechanical failure). Gordon did two things well: qualify and pass. Larson, who earned four top-10 finishes in his first eight races — only one ending with a crash — hasn’t had the qualifying chops (16.4-place average start), but is certainly displaying an elite passing ability, with an adjusted pass efficiency of 53.07 percent that ranks fifth in the series.
Ironically, a 42-year-old Gordon currently ranks first in adjusted pass efficiency.
Austin Dillon is 2006 Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s highs were a bit higher and lows a bit lower, but his initial eight-race slate is similar to Dillon’s in that he was finishing races, all the while emerging as a darkhorse Chase contender. Qualifying proved troublesome for both. Omitting his best two qualifying efforts in the first eight events, Bowyer averaged a 29th-place start, while the same drill for Dillon results in a 24th-place average. Interestingly enough, it was Bowyer’s crew chief, Gil Martin, who helped him close out races — he finished sixth, 14th and 15th after being non-factors in his first three starts. Martin is now Dillon’s head wrench and helps comprise the best closing unit in the sport.
Justin Allgaier is 2000 Dave Blaney
Both drivers cut their teeth on dirt — Blaney is actually better known for his dirt accolades than his stock car effort and was 37 years old when he made the full-time leap to the Cup Series — and both were mid-20s fixtures through the first eight races of their rookie season. Allgaier averaged a 25.4-place finish in his first eight races, roughly two positions better than Blaney’s effort in seven of the first eight (he failed to qualify for the second race of the season at Rockingham). They had one highlight race in the span of races in question; Blaney scored a 20th-place finish at Atlanta and Allgaier finished 17th at Bristol.
Unlike Blaney, Allgaier has time to develop. At age 27, he is still eight years away from the average prime production window for modern day Cup drivers (ages 35 to 39).
Michael Annett is 2003 Casey Mears
Tommy Baldwin Racing isn’t the multi-series stalwart Chip Ganassi Racing was in 2003, so Annett’s 30.9-place average so far this season is more impressive than what Mears was able to accomplish (an average result of 28.5) early that year. Mears finished 15th at Las Vegas — his only finish inside the top half of a field in the first eight races — and sprinkled results across the bottom half of fields in his remaining starts. He crashed minimally (for a rookie), exiting just one race due to accident (a plate race at Talladega). A plate race (Daytona) was also the culprit for one of Annett’s two DNF-accidents, and he has similarly gathered finishes all across the bottom half of fields. Annett’s lone finish inside the top 21 came at Fontana.
Cole Whitt is 2008 Regan Smith
There are two major differences here. First, from a pure driver production standpoint, Smith had a horrendous rookie season (a replacement-level Production in Equal Equipment Rating of -0.306). Second, Smith’s equipment, from the post-Dale Jr. era Dale Earnhardt, Inc., was far better than anything Whitt has had to drive this year with Swan Racing. Acknowledging those differences, their numbers through eight races are eerily similar. Smith averaged a 31.3-place finish, with just one result coming in the top half of the field (a 14th-place run at Martinsville). Whitt averaged a 30.9-place finish through eight, also with just one finish (an 18th-place effort in Fontana) coming in the top 21. Amazingly, Smith went on to win the Rookie of the Year award. Whitt will be lucky to have his 2014 season remembered by even the most nuanced observers of the sport.
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Parker Kligerman is 2007 David Reutimann
One of the few drivers that could truly sympathize with Kligerman’s rough, unlucky and crash-filled start to his rookie season is Reutimann, who joined a revamped Michael Waltrip Racing organization with Toyota power and high hopes. In the first eight races of 2007 MWR was embroiled in the infamous Daytona jet fuel incident. Reutimann failed to qualify for three of the first eight races, crashed out of two and couldn’t finish better than 32nd. Kligerman, who has finished just four of eight races, holds a best result of 29th. Reutimann’s 35.6-place average was only two positions better than Kligerman’s 37.2.
Alex Bowman is 2008 Michael McDowell
Based on his NASCAR Nationwide Series production last season (a serviceable 1.594 PEER that could have improved this year with more seasoning) and his age (just shy of 21), one could make a convincing case that Bowman wasn’t totally ready to enter the Cup Series this year. That absolutely could be said for McDowell who, back in 2008, jumped straight from the ARCA Series to Cup with Michael Waltrip Racing. McDowell and first-time crew chief Bill Pappas (a name we haven’t heard since that ’08 campaign) struggled in their first eight races, which actually started with Martinsville, finishing no better than 26th. McDowell’s best finish that season was 20th at Richmond. It won’t come as a major surprise if Bowman and his BK Racing team (led by first-time crew chief Dave Winston) emulate McDowell’s season-long rookie results. Bowman’s best race to date is a 22nd-place finish in Fontana.
Ryan Truex is 2011 Andy Lally
Lally and Truex entered the Cup Series with relatively new race teams. Both underwent crew chief changes (Lally from Jay Guy to Paul Clapprood, Truex from Dale Ferguson to Doug Richert) in the first eight races. Both struggled to break into the top 30 of the running order. It took the Talladega draft for Lally to score a 19th-place finish. Truex didn’t even qualify for the Daytona 500, a race that could’ve padded his stat line, and Talladega is still three weeks away. Lally returned to the world of Sports Car racing following his rookie season and if Truex doesn’t register any blips on the results radar, he too might find himself looking for a new home at season’s end.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.