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NASCAR Rookie Report: Flawed system rewards best team, not best driver


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 openly questions how the title of “Rookie of the Year” is awarded.

Do you know who Luke Willson is? No, he’s not an actor — that’s Luke Wilson, with one “L.” Willson was a rookie tight end on the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks who ranked sixth on the team in receiving yards and was a mere bit player on a perennial playoff team loaded with talent. Needless to say, his name wasn’t bandied about as a potential recipient of the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award.

True story: If NASCAR rules applied to the NFL, Willson would be the Rookie of the Year.

I often avoid bemoaning the rules and procedures of a sanctioning body whose actions are polarizing. This, though, is egregious. How NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year is awarded is through a bizarre point system that allocates 10 points for the best finishing rookie, nine points for the second best, eight points for the third best, et al. Then it omits all results not among a candidate’s best 17 races (it’s 16 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series and 14 for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series).

In essence, NASCAR has done two things. First, it’s rewarding an individual for what a team accomplishes. Then, it’s suggesting only the best 50 percent of their season matters.

According to, Austin Dillon is the current leader in the Rookie of the Year standings following Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, by six points over Kyle Larson. Dillon’s finishes relative to other rookies (15th-place average finish) is vastly superior; however, Dillon is the only driver among this year’s crop that climbed into a car tailor-made for making the Chase. In three of the last four seasons, Dillon’s team with Kevin Harvick as the driver finished third in the overall point standings. Last year, Harvick averaged an 11.2-place finish. Currently 13th in overall points, Dillon’s addition has made his race team roughly four positions worse per race and 10 positions worse in the standings.

Is Dillon just benefiting from pre-existing strength? If he is, as of today, the deserving ROTY recipient, then NASCAR isn’t allowing anyone to make that distinction. That’s something that should change.

How a Rookie of the Year winner is decided in other sports is based on a media vote. It allows accredited media members a chance to think, debate, converse and make observations that a bad point system cannot. I’m Athlon’s resident stat analyst and by the unwritten code of statisticians, I’m supposed to be steadfast in my opposition to the human element; however, I have more faith in letting Bob Pockrass, Nate Ryan, Jeff Gluck and Jenna Fryer anoint a Rookie of the Year than I do in a decision based on an arcane point standing.

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Two weeks ago I interviewed Parker Kligerman in this column and he spoke of his goal to help bring his No. 30 Swan Racing team to a top-25 points finish. That’d be an admirable leap, considering the team that fielded its entry primarily for David Stremme last season finished 33rd in the standings. In modern day NASCAR, an eight-point jump in the standings represents a gigantic step forward. Per the current rookie standing rules, Kligerman’s effort in this regard likely will go unnoticed. A more talented team can score a better points finish — a product of better results — and gift-wrap its rookie a career-defining accolade. If there were an official vote, Kligerman would at least receive consideration and probably be the subject of some well-written, finely researched articles.

The same goes for the likes of Justin Allgaier, Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt, Michael Annett and Ryan Truex, who with 32 races left on the 2014 schedule, still have a chance to perform better than their predecessors in previous seasons. Such an impact on an organization deserves to be considered for recognition, for which voters would be responsible.

Human vote and voice would have also prevented some of the sport’s most dubious ROTY recipients.

In 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored the first Cup Series win in the history of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and went on to score two more victories, including a win in the All-Star Race, but lost in the Rookie of the Year standings to Matt Kenseth, who notched six more top-10 finishes for established power Roush Fenway Racing.

In 2002, Jimmie Johnson joined a startup Hendrick Motorsports team and scored three wins, ranked fourth in laps led, fourth in average finish (13.5) and finished fifth in the point standings, just one position better than Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman, who scored two less wins (though he did win the All-Star Race) for Team Penske. This, if anything, should have led to a Co-Rookie of the Year decision, something familiar to fans of other sports.

Questions pertaining to eligibility would have likely been raised in 2005 when Carl Edwards, in his first full Cup Series season, scored four victories and finished within sniffing distance of a Cup Series championship in what was statistically the most impressive season by a newcomer in the Chase era. Because he competed in 13 Cup races the prior season, he was ineligible to receive the Rookie of the Year award, of which Kyle Busch took home in a runaway. If the eligibility requirements today were retroactively applied, Edwards would be the winner, both by the NASCAR rookie standing and, likely, a vote.

A movement not to vote — or the Richard Pryor stance — would have been appreciated in 2012 when Stephen Leicht started and parked his way to winning the award. Even NASCAR quietly realized that his “win” was a joke and didn’t ask Leicht to speak at any of the year-end award banquets.

Understanding how results came to be is arguably more important than the results themselves. The human element is prone to error, yes, but it’s also able to decipher the impact of race results better than a point system built with flawed logic.

Luke Willson’s team won the Super Bowl and for that, he and his teammates will receive rings. Willson’s impact on the team, minimal compared to the work of other more established players, does not deserve to be recognized, so it isn't. That’s the way it should be.

The Rookie of the Year should be awarded to the best rookie, not the rookie with the best team.

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.