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 takes no talent to poke holes in a young driver’s maturation process. It’s something I’m guilty of doing, and while I’m sure it’s alienated fans of the driver in question, discussing weak spots can be a proactive exercise, especially if any and all proposed changes are made.
It’s also easy to harp on things that might be true and fail to draw out the entire story. In many cases, when a weakness or black-mark stat pertaining to a driver appears, there’s a “Yeah, but” item that should also be considered. In this week’s edition of the Rookie Report rankings, I delve into the “Yeah, buts” for each driver in this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie crop.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
The crash and the consequential last-place finish at Michigan was the deathblow to Larson’s Chase hopes. With the Michigan race omitted, his average finish in the seven races prior to the Chase was eighth, which was also the exact spot he finished at Michigan in the spring. So say he finished eighth — it’d guarantee him 36 points, 35 more than what he earned with his last-place finish, and place him in the 16th and final Chase spot earned by Greg Biffle.
Yeah, but … Larson finished 38th in his first Daytona 500 (after crashing three times), 27th in his first time ever competing at Martinsville, 28th at Sonoma, 40th at Kentucky and 36th in the July Daytona race.
Biffle had just three finishes of 28th or worse compared to Larson’s six. Ryan Newman, one of two other drivers to qualify for the Chase on points, had just one finish under those parameters. Since Larson couldn’t contend with the frantic top-5 finish pace of Matt Kenseth, who had five finishes of 28th or worse, but doubled Larson’s top-5 finish frequency (10, compared to five), the only way for Larson to crack the playoffs was to not defeat himself as much as his counterparts. Larson’s failure was a cumulative result, not due to one last-place showing, and the teams of Biffle and Newman made less race-killing mistakes than Ganassi’s No. 42 bunch.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
Dillon failed to make the Chase driving for a team that finished third in points three times in the last four years.
Yeah, but … Dillon began the season as a relatively raw Cup Series driver and is now demonstrating discernible improvement. In fact, he’s bucking a rookie trend by performing better in second runs at tracks that he visited previously this season with his current team. For the exception of Bristol — he finished 28th in the August race after finishing 11th in the spring — he improved at every facility. He finished fifth at Daytona in July (he finished ninth in the 500), 15th at Pocono (17th previously), 22nd at Michigan (30th previously) and 20th at Richmond (27th previously). It amounts to a 0.8-position improvement from first visits to second visits
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
Allgaier is averaging a 26.4-place finish this year.
Yeah, but … let’s omit his series-worst five races in which he earned a crashed-caused DNF. Then, let’s split up all the races in the season’s first half (the first 18 races) and second half (all races following the July race in Daytona). His average result in the races he finished was 25.7 through the first half. Thus far through the second half, his DNF-omitted average is 21.8, almost four full positions better. The improvement depicts a driver and a team growing as one. Allgaier heads to his home track of Chicagoland Speedway, where he won a NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 2011, this Sunday.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 4)
Whitt is averaging a 31.3-place running position this season.
Yeah, but … that number is tops among the trio of BK Racing drivers. He was the best-running BK driver in four of the last six races. Even though that effort netted just one finish inside the top half of fields, in a world predicated by getting everything possible out of given equipment, Whitt is better at it than any other current BK driver (both of the normal and start-and-park flavor of the week variety). Too bad NASCAR isn’t Formula One. If it were, he’d be a media darling.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 5)
Annett has a minus-0.44 percent surplus passing value at normal tracks — tracks that aren’t plate tracks or road courses — this season.
Yeah, but … beginning with Memorial Day weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, Annett has scored positive single-race surplus passing values (SPVs) in nine of 12 starts on normal tracks, averaging a plus-0.89 percent SPV during the span. This means that after a particularly brutal start to the season that saw him earn negative SPVs — which measures passing efficiency relative to a running position’s expected efficiency — in seven of his first nine normal-track starts, Annett has acclimated well to running against competitors near his average whereabouts, which hovers around 29th place.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6)
Bowman is averaging a 33.4-place running position this season.
Yeah, but … he is averaging a finish of 31.8, primarily due to his No. 23 team being such a strong-closing unit. Granted, when cars are off of the lead lap, and Bowman has just three lead-lap finishes this season, it’s easier to retain position late in a race. Still, a 95.45 percent red zone retention rate is worthy of applause and, more often than not, he is moving in a forward direction, evident by his 1.3-position-per-race gain in the final 10 percent of races.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7)
Truex and crew chief Joe Williams drop 1.7 positions, on average, in the final 10 percent of races.
Yeah, but … that movement down the grid only comes when Truex is in the garage, evident by a 100 percent base retention in races the No. 83 car was running at the finish. Truex and Williams have made serious efforts in improving track position. Just as Truex has improved on his pass efficiency, Williams is beginning to ensure that positions aren’t being lost on pit road. Across green-flag pit cycles in the last four races, Williams earned Truex six extra positions.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.