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 gives special attention to a rookie primed for an “upset win” this weekend at Talladega.
The racing at Talladega Superspeedway is a polarizing topic among race fans and competitors. And that’s really based on how it’s perceived. If you’re living in the moment, ‘Dega is an absolute crapshoot, and to be fair, there will be approximately eleventy billion lead changes this Sunday, all of which will undoubtedly be touted in ticket sales promotions for next spring’s race. Plus, where else can Front Row Motorsports win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race? This is the only track on the circuit in which David Ragan and David Gilliland matter.
If you aren’t living in the moment, and look at Talladega races as a whole, it’s only a crapshoot in the relative sense. In the last nine races in Alabama which encompass all Cup events dating back to 2010, usual front-running teams — Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing — scored victories in seven events. Ragan’s win in 2013, while believed to be the norm, was actually an outlier. Jamie McMurray’s win last year was his second career score at Talladega, but a rare victory for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Stock Car wing. Three of those wins belong to the usual suspects emanated from RCR drivers Clint Bowyer (who won in 2010 and 2011) and Kevin Harvick (2010).
Though RCR winning a third of the races during that span is impressive, it was its drivers that took the majority of the credit as “restrictor plate aces.” Bowyer and Harvick are gone, but RCR will still trot out three entries this weekend, all of which will be capable of winning — they were the only multi-car organization to place three entries in the top 20 of NASCAR’s average green-flag speed ranking there in May — but one sticks out more than the others.
Paul Menard will experience his first race with new crew chief Justin Alexander on Sunday, beginning a five-race de-facto preseason jaunt for 2015. RCR’s lone Chase contender, Ryan Newman, is on the record as vehemently hating Talladega (easily understood since he’s flipped violently at the track on three separate occasions). Based more on situation than statistics, those two probably aren’t clear favorites to emerge with the trophy.
If a strong organization winning at Talladega is the norm, and RCR comprises the highest win total in recent races, then rookie Austin Dillon should be considered a more serious candidate for the win than usual. He almost corralled a victory in this race last year while substituting for the injured Tony Stewart — before nearly ending up on his lid during the waning laps. His No. 3 Chevrolet SS claimed the pole for this year’s Daytona 500 and his finishes of ninth, 15th and fifth in the three restrictor plate races this year are all better than his 16.8-place season-long average result.
Dillon being a rookie on the hunt for his first career Cup Series conquest shouldn’t deter anyone from thinking he’s a threat for the win. Out of 90 races at the 2.66-mile facility, 10 were won by first-time winners, including Davey Allison and Brad Keselowski, who scored their victories during their first seasons in the Cup Series. For six of those 10, it served as their only win in Cup Series competition. As much as it would help add to the crapshoot lore, Dillon winning in a RCR car wouldn’t be much of a fluke considering how well the organization has game-planned in these events.
A big part of Dillon’s elevated performance on the plate tracks is crew chief Gil Martin. One of RCR’s secrets to success on the plate tracks is its ability to scoop up positions offered during green-flag pit cycles. This season alone, Martin earned Dillon 20 extra spots through short-pitting during these pit cycles. That’s not nearly the 40 that Luke Lambert earned Newman through three outings this season, but it’s good enough to rank as the eighth-largest amount of positions gained in the entire series. Between Martin, Lambert and Nick Harrison (on behalf of part-timer Brian Scott), RCR teams gained 81 positions on green-flag pit cycles at Daytona and Talladega. It’s a ton of track position, rivaled only by Roush Fenway Racing’s triumvirate (its three teams combined for 76 positions earned).
During the ESPN telecast of qualifying last week at Charlotte, Andy Petree noted that Dillon has “found speed” of late, which in the general sense is a true statement. Following Charlotte, Dillon and team rank 23rd in average green-flag speed for the season and 20th in average running position (18.9). This represents a decent leap from where they were after the Bristol race in late August, ranking 24th in average green-flag speed and 21st in average running position (19.4). To the layperson, a half-position increase doesn’t seem like much, but to a NASCAR team, it’s quite a feat.
Dillon himself took a turn for the better in the passing game, which is an element of the sport that has confounded him for the majority of his time in NASCAR’s three premier divisions. Following an eight-race stretch in which he accumulated negative adjusted pass differentials in every single contest, Dillon has scored two positive-differential performances in a row at Kansas (53.72 percent adjusted efficiency) and Charlotte (51.23). Position jockeying will see numbers too inflated to trust this weekend, but the point is that Dillon and this team have never shown better form than what they’ve displayed in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s 500-mile tilt.
That makes the idea of a Dillon “upset” at Talladega that much more believable.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.