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 attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
It happened. One rookie among the eight full-timers that entered the 2014 season was cut from the herd.
Looking back it was close to inevitable — not for the driver in question, but based on historical odds. In the last eight rookie classes dating back to 2006, six had a rookie not make it to the conclusion of the season.
Parker Kligerman is no Brent Sherman, though. His small sample size was littered with crashes, mechanical failures and dumb luck. To call his performance poor would be a broad stroke. He showed glimpses — much like he did last season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with an underwhelming Kyle Busch Motorsports team — of talent deserving of Sunday participation. He passed for value (1.88 percent than his average running position’s expected pass efficiency) and, when he finished races, didn’t leave positions on the table, making his highest running position of the race his finishing position at both Bristol and Darlington.
Sometimes, though, business gets in the way of sports. This isn’t exclusive to NASCAR. Across stick-and-ball sports, salary cap casualties are an occupational hazard. Swan Racing had no money to go racing — all those sponsor deals were either small-money sweetheart agreements or leveraged business dealings — or pay its employees. Cole Whitt’s entry, which included the service of crew chief Randy Cox, was purchased by BK Racing. Kligerman’s car number and points — in essence, everything he had to show for his season to date — was purchased by Xxxtreme Motorsports (not a typo — an actual, functioning business chose to spell its name like that) and given to J.J. Yeley, satisfying the dozens of Yeley fans across the globe clamoring for more J.J.
Now out in the cold, Kligerman’s status in the industry will change from beholden to beholder. To fans, he is a fun guy who interacts with them in the social mediasphere. To team decision-makers, his career to date has been flashes of brilliance with more question than answers. To me, he is a keg of potential waiting to be tapped, evident by those flashes the last several years in Cup, Nationwide, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and in the ARCA Series.
What he is not is T.J. Bell, Dexter Bean, Brandon Whitt or the immortal Brent Sherman; in essence, a driver who funded his entryway into the Cup Series without the ability that’s necessary to hack it (when the money dried up, so did their tenure in Cup). Based on all of their upbringings within the sport, that type of driver doesn’t exist in this year’s class.
The parking of Kligerman didn’t have anything to do with talent, nor should talent be the thing that keeps him from reentry. He is a financial casualty in a business disguised as a sport.
Sans Kligerman, here are the latest rankings of the seven Cup Series rookies that will take to the track this Saturday night at Kansas Speedway:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
Larson finished ninth at Talladega after averaging the day’s eighth-best running position (15.511). That’s a far cry from his first restrictor plate showing in the Cup Series — a three-accident DNF in the Daytona 500. Still, his critics weren’t pleased.
The self-described “Outlaw,” Kurt Busch, at the time running in front of Larson, radioed to his crew, “I don’t like this kid running behind us. He ass-packed us at Daytona.”
To be fair to Busch, outlaws have been dodging ass-packings since Curly Bill Brocius grew skeptical of Wyatt Earp’s intentions in 1881.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
Dillon gained 14 positions in the red zone (the final 10 percent of the race) at Talladega, effectively leap-frogging the No. 3 team past Tony Stewart’s No. 14 bunch and back into the designation of “best closing team in the sport.” Their plus-22 percent position retention difference indicates that they are averaging a whopping 4.5-position gain in the waning laps of races.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
If not for a restart gone awry, Allgaier would have finished inside the top 15, where he spent over 17 percent of the race, at Richmond. That was the first of two races in which the ending didn’t justify the effort. He finished on the lead lap at Talladega, but was spun while taking the white flag. He ran inside the top 15 for the majority of the final 20 laps.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 5)
His second race with BK Racing was 20 positions better than his first as he snuck away with a 21st-place finish at Talladega. The “good” in his season has come in stealth, though. Underneath his 33rd-place standing in the points, he is a value passer (his plus-2.07 percent average surplus value ranks 11th in the series).
5. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 4)
Annett’s season-best qualifying position (17th) and finishing position (16th), coming at Talladega, couldn’t have come soon enough. His adjusted pass efficiency and surplus passing values diminished with each race from Phoenix to Darlington, and Richmond — a track wherein he scored four-straight Nationwide Series finishes of 13th or better — only netted him a 33rd-place finish.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 7)
With a 0.30 crash frequency, Bowman is the least-frequent crasher among all rookies. Unfortunately two of his three crashes in the first 10 races took place at Talladega, including a nasty impact with the outside wall that birthed the debris that ended the race prematurely. The good news is that the over-the-top crashing at Talladega was an anomaly, and Bowman’s clean reputation should remain intact in the coming weeks’ races.
Did You Notice? ...Teams in trouble, drivers moving on, and Talladega's fear factor
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 8)
Truex was taken out on lap 182 last Sunday, but the DNF still resulted in a 31st-place finish. After an identical 31st-place finish at Richmond (after qualifying eighth via practice), the last two races were 4.5 positions better than his average finish through his first six outings of the season (35.5).
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.