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NASCAR Rookie Report: Did Cup newbies making a "passing" grade in season's third quarter?


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 third quarter passing splits of rookies from the 2014 season.

In July, I wrapped up my analysis of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season’s first half by looking into first and second quarter passing splits in an effort to evaluate the growth of the seven rookies in this year’s class. Whereas average finishes tend to emphasize team growth — easily confused as a proper barometer for driver growth — studying passing splits allows us to understand how well a driver is acclimating to a series, a car and his or her surrounding competition.

When I analyze passing numbers, I choose to focus on adjusted pass 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 from a driver in their average running position, telling us how well a driver passes against other drivers in his or her “track position neighborhood.”

APE and SPV are peripheral numbers that help explain the greater goal; the ultimate measure of drivers is their position at the conclusion of the final lap, and passing is one explanation as to how the result came to be.

Austin Dillon’s drop in efficiency, from 47.47 percent to 46.67, is not the most precipitous among the rookies; however, it may be the most disheartening. After earning a 49.27 percent APE in the first quarter of the season, he became less efficient with each nine-race span.

That efficiency dip played a hand in his drop in average finish from second quarter to third. He scored an average result of 17.2 in the nine events spanning from Talladega to the July Daytona race; he averaged a finish of 18.3 in the most recent nine, which began with three consecutive top-15 finishes. His worst outings, and an average finish of 23.5, came in the Michigan-to-Richmond spell, wherein Dillon earned an APE of 43.09 percent — 50 percent means that exactly half of a driver’s pass encounters are positive passes and anything below that is in the red — during that span.

If the pattern of diminished efficiency continues, there is reason to believe that it could make the fourth and final quarter the worst of Dillon’s rookie season and reaffirm previous concerns over the 2012 Nationwide Series champion’s ability to overtake for position.

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The most improved passer in the season’s third quarter was, ironically, the driver that regressed the most from the first quarter to the second.

Justin Allgaier’s 2.8-percent improvement in efficiency and gargantuan 5.05-percent jump in SPV was the most fetching among the rookies, as he rejoined the ranks of plus passers — drivers with efficiencies in the black in both APE and SPV — the last nine races. For the season, he holds a 50.82 percent efficiency that contains a 1.93 percent surplus value.  

My hypothesis on why Allgaier dropped in the season’s second quarter was because of improved average running position. Evident by a 0.3-position increase, from 25.3 to 25.0, Allgaier was competing against stronger competition more often in the season’s second quarter. Following the last nine races, his season-long average running position dropped to 25.2. That slight drop in running whereabouts means he saw and passed cars that he had no problem overtaking.  

His might be a case of simple regression to the mean, or it might mean that the dichotomy between cars averaging a 25.1-place average running position or better and those averaging 25.2 or worse just happens to be extremely problematic for him for whatever reason. Regardless, his rookie-year ebb and flow has been intriguing to watch.

Ryan Truex’s improvement from his first quarter to his second was really the first positive thing to emerge from a troublesome rookie campaign, so it’s good news that efficiency regression didn’t take place in the third quarter. In fact, his 45.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency in the last nine races was identical to his second quarter tally.

Truex did, however, encounter a drop in SPV, falling from a plus-3.44 percent value to a minus-2.6 percent take, a decrease of more than 6 percent. That’s the result of six straight races, beginning with Indianapolis and skipping Michigan (he sat out due to a concussion suffered in a practice crash), which saw negative SPVs. In last Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, he registered a value of minus-7.18 percent. It was his worst single-race SPV of the entire season.

Though the efficiency remained the same, his SPV took a hit due to increased running position. Two races in the season’s third quarter, at Indianapolis and Pocono, saw him earn race-long average running positions of 32.8 and 29.9, respectively, which served as two of his three best single-race ARPs of the year.

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.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.