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 driver in this year’s rookie class.
America loves rankings, right? Ranking the drivers in this tantalizing crop can be maddening, especially considering we have just one week’s worth of a sample size to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, that sample was collected at Daytona. Although it’s The World Center of Racing, its restrictor plate racing style rears its head just four times over the course of the annual Cup Series calendar and isn’t indicative of everything a driver does in a single season.
Way too soon to rank the competitors? Perhaps. That’s why, to fill the many gaps, I have incorporated what we know of each driver dating back to their previous limited showings in the Cup Series in 2013 and their performance in NASCAR’s lower divisions.
For the top-ranked driver, consideration of his past performance does wonders because his Daytona 500 debut was one he’d be inclined to forget.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 – In 2013, everything Larson touched turned to gold (except at Daytona, which we’ll get to in a second). He led NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) and passing efficiency, though neither showed in Turner Scott Motorsports equipment. Though he failed to win a race, he did manage four runner-up finishes last season.
A last-lap accident in the Nationwide opener at Daytona last year resulted in him nearly going to the stands as part of a hellacious flip. This year’s effort at Daytona was less violent, but just as eventful. In total, he crashed three times during the 500. Though not all the incidents were of his doing, it didn’t do much to quell the notion that the rim-riding rookie is prone to crashing; his 0.36 crash frequency in 2013 was the highest among Nationwide Series regulars.
2. Parker Kligerman, No. 30 – Kligerman’s practice session on the Wednesday prior to the Duel races resulted in him flipping onto his roof. A backup car from a shallow Swan Racing stable didn’t appear to have sufficient enough speed; he didn’t crack the top 10 in the running order once in the Daytona 500, a relatively random race from lap to lap. His reputation precedes him, though, considering his 2.114 PEER ranked 10th overall and fourth among series regulars last year in the Nationwide Series. As he did for much of last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports’s hapless Nationwide arm, he’ll have to make lemonade out of lemons this year with the small Swan operation.
3. Austin Dillon, No. 3 – Thank goodness for team support. Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing team built a car strong enough to put the No. 3 on the pole for the Daytona 500 in the famous number’s return to Cup Series racing. After avoiding the competition in his Duel race — thus, conserving his car and starting spot — Dillon struggled in the 500, securing a minus-15 pass differential (48.12 percent efficiency). Crew chief Gil Martin aptly short-pitted the car well enough on the evening’s first green-flag pit cycle to jump Dillon from 39th to 24th.
Triggering two accidents and missing his pit stall en route to a rookie-best eighth-place finish, Dillon admitted in his post-race interview that, “The yellow stripes on the bumper (signifying rookie status) showed a little bit tonight.”
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 – Whitt was involved in a crash during practice on Wednesday, but a Swan crew led by Whitt’s long-time wrench Randy Cox buffed out a lot of the cosmetic damage prior to his Duel race. Amazingly, he spent all but three laps of it running 15th (the final transfer position) or better. In the 500, he found himself close to the top 5 near the ends of pit cycles, which could have translated into a higher-than-expected finish had the race gone green for the duration. He ended up being one of the casualties of the same accident that bit fellow Swan driver Parker Kligerman.
5. Alex Bowman, No. 23 – Outside of a pit road speeding penalty on lap 85, Bowman’s Cup Series race was relatively and pleasantly uneventful. He was one of two rookies to actually finish the race (his final spot was 23rd), carrying the flag for a BK Racing organization that failed to put one of its two machines in the show. A serviceable producer last season in the Nationwide Series, it might take Bowman emulating his isolated ability of 2013 in order to go far press on with a team still in search of speed.
6. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 – Allgaier’s 50 percent pass efficiency — meaning he passed the same number of times (in his case, 339) he got passed — was tops among rookies in last Sunday’s 500, but his inclusion in the lap 194 accident that set up the race’s final restart shattered his chances at a more desired finishing result. The 27th-place finish was three spots above the average result (30.2) he earned last season in four late-year starts for HScott Motorsports.
7. Michael Annett, No. 7 – In his Duel race, Annett was stymied by the side draft and eventually lost the lead pack altogether, relying on his qualifying time to make the Daytona 500. Once the feature race rolled around, Annett’s issue with the side draft was corrected. He was running ninth with less than 50 laps to go, before being caught up in an accident. If his ability to correct a foible was any indication, anticipate Annett’s second half of the season looking significantly stronger than his first.
8. Ryan Truex, No. 83 – The biggest knock on Truex coming into this season was his lack of repetitions in smaller NASCAR divisions over the last few years. Missing the biggest race of the season does nothing to assuage that concern. If it can be considered a silver lining, he did manage to acquit himself well in a rare NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start, finishing fourth in last Friday’s season opener.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.