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NASCAR Rookie Report: Are Cup newbies making a "passing" grade?


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 analyzes the first- and second-quarter passing splits of rookies from the 2014 season.

Splitting the first half of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season into two quarters allows us to evaluate the growth of the seven rookies in this year’s crop. Average finishes, which tend to be the default barometer of success in NASCAR, have altered — and a lot of that can be contributed to team growth — but just how well have the newbies assimilated to their surroundings?

I’m choosing to pay close attention to each driver’s passing splits. Now, some tracks might be kinder to specific drivers (i.e., Kyle Larson favors banked tracks, Michael Annett comes alive at big tracks, etc.) but in large improvements we can ascertain that a driver is adjusting to life in a difficult division of the sport reasonably well.

The passing numbers I utilize for the Cup Series are adjusted passing efficiency (APE), which measures the percentage of pass encounters that are successful passes while omitting pit road gains under green-flag conditions, and surplus passing value (SPV), which measures the average difference between a driver’s actual efficiency in a single race versus the expected efficiency from a driver in their average running position, telling us how well a driver passes against the driver in his or her “track position neighborhood.”

When you break down the digits of this number-centric sport, passing is a peripheral number that helps explain the greater goal; the ultimate measure of a driver is his or her position at the conclusion of the final lap, and passing is one explanation as to how the result came to be.

Kyle Larson, my first-half Rookie of the Year if there were such a thing, has become a more potent passer. Securing an efficiency of 53.07 percent in the first nine races — that’s pretty stellar right there; 50 percent means that exactly half of your pass encounters are positive passes, and anything beyond that is in the black — he saw a sly increase to 53.42 in the second nine. This is a pretty major development for two reasons.

First, that Larson ranks third in the Cup Series in adjusted pass efficiency (he trails Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick) is a big deal, and potentially foreshadows future success. Second is the fact that Larson’s average running position hasn’t fluctuated much — it was 18.8 after the first nine races; to date it is 18.9 — meaning he is improving in his surroundings as well. Of all Cup Series rookies, he saw the third-biggest increase in surplus passing value (plus-1.8 percent), but it might be the most impressive step forward considering he holds the best average running position among them.

While Larson has gained, Justin Allgaier, who passed with relative ease early in the season and postulated about running positions in an interview with Athlon Sports, has regressed.

At one point a plus passer (“plus” meaning he passed above the magic 50 percent mark), Allgaier has slipped back into the red, recording a 49.63 percent efficiency in the second nine races and holding a 49.97 percent efficiency for the season. His rookie-best SPV in the first quarter of the season (plus-2.91 percent) saw the biggest drop in the second.

One reason for this drop may be due to a minor improvement in running position, going from a 25.3 average place to a 25.0, which means he is more frequently among better-running cars that prove more difficult to pass. The drop in efficiency and value does not completely explain his gargantuan three-position drop in average finish, though (from 24.9 to 27.9).

Allgaier and crew chief Steve Addington didn’t have much success in closing races through the season’s first quarter, retaining their position at a race’s 90 percent-to-go mark 66.7 percent of the time for a loss of 16 positions. They’re foible exacerbated in the second quarter; they retained that 90-percent position 55.6 percent of the time and accrued a loss of 39 positions during those stints. The losses in position can be attributed to being passed on the track and on pit road, or due to car setups that lose speed, evident by his two-position drop in average green-flag speed from the third quarter of races (he ranks 26th) to the fourth quarter (ranks 28th).

The greatest improvements in efficiency and value belong to Ryan Truex, who increased his efficiency by 3.51 percent and his surplus value by 5.87 percent; however, this didn’t manifest in an improvement of race results. His average finish — from 34.8 through the first nine races to 35.3 in the second — saw a half-position decrease. If the driver became more adept at getting through traffic, what, exactly, transpired to make his finishes worse?

His DNFs across the splits increased from one to four, which included three terminal crashes at Talladega, Kansas and Daytona. One could argue that two of those — Talladega and Daytona — were just bad luck. He crashed only four times across the eight races for which he qualified (a frequency of 0.5 times per race); he crashed three times across his first seven starts (a frequency of 0.43), which led to one DNF. The impact of a crash, which determines the damage amount, can often be considered a dice roll. The solution to this problem is to simply crash less. Carnage isn’t the lone culprit for his results decline, though.

On his third crew chief of the season, Truex has also dealt with race-callers that appear to vary in pit strategy philosophy. Through the first nine races Dale Ferguson and Doug Richert combined to lose three positions via short-pitting tactics, which is a predominately balanced number. In the next nine races, Richert and Joe Williams provided Truex with a 17-position loss. The team was actually headed in a positive direction in this regard prior to Kentucky, but in the last two races, they gave away 14 and six positions each during green-flag pit cycles. Sure, Truex is becoming a more able passer, but all of his numbers are in sub-50 territory. There isn’t anything that suggests he would be able to make up a significant loss in track position.

For Truex, passing has been a significant area of improvement, but the team as a whole, attempting to get the best possible result, requires more gains in other areas to capitalize on a driver that we’re watching mature on a spreadsheet.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.