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.
When seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams elected to tab a rookie to climb aboard their entry for the 2014 season, it meant at least seven drivers — those cars’ previous occupants — were left looking for new jobs.
Though the act of taking on a rookie is a long-term investment that shouldn’t be expected to yield any immediate dividends, a team’s performance will certainly change — more often for the worse — right after the driver switch is made.
Do immediate returns dictate whether a transaction of this manner was “good?” Not necessarily, but it’s still a fun exercise. How do the drivers in this year’s rookie crop compare to the previous drivers of their equipment?
This week’s Athlon Sports Rookie Rankings compares this year’s results to those of each rookie’s predecessor:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Replaced Juan Pablo Montoya. Larson tops all rookies with a 0.981 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) through 13 races and his 15th-place average finish with chief wrench Chris Heroy ranks ninth in the series among driver-crew chief combinations (it currently bests what 2012 champion Brad Keselowski has accomplished in 12 races with Paul Wolfe on the box: a 15.1-place average result). Through 13 races in 2013, Montoya averaged a 20.6-place finish and had corralled just one top-5 outing. Larson has earned two thus far. Their time spent running in the top 15 is close to equal; 43.7 percent of Montoya’s laps through the Dover race weekend were in 15th place or better, while Larson’s tally this season comes in around 44.7 percent.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Replaced Kevin Harvick. Perhaps the most unfair task asked of all of this year’s rookies, Dillon was/is never going to emulate the production output of a potential Hall of Famer in his first year. Harvick averaged a 14.2-place finish through the first 13 races of 2013 in what was, outside of wins at Richmond and Charlotte, a slow start to the season — he had no other top-5 finishes beyond the wins. Dillon has zero top-5 finishes, but his average result is only off of Harvick’s by 2.3 spots. Consistency, in this case, is killing. Dillon’s 16.5 average finish is the second-most consistent in the series, per a finish deviation of 5.5, trailing only David Ragan’s 3.4 on top of a pitiful 32.1-place average.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Replaced Regan Smith, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Dillon. Amazingly, previous team owner James Finch earned an average finish of 17.9 through the first 13 races with the Smith-Allmendinger-Dillon amalgamation, which was collectively better than the average finish of would-be Chase participants Kurt Busch (18.5) and Ryan Newman (19.5) through that initial slate. This kind of output was never expected from Allgaier, who is averaging a 26.9-place finish for a new team owner (Harry Scott), crew chief (Steve Addington, who replaced the highly underrated Nick Harrison) and an organization still seeking solid ground in NASCAR’s most competitive series.
4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Replaced Dave Blaney. Blaney averaged a 27.2-place finish — over two spots better than Annett’s 29.5 — but his best two finishes came in the more randomized restrictor plate races, where he brought home results of 16th and 17th at Daytona and Talladega, respectively. Where Annett has produced dutiful results is at the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, where he is averaging a consistent 27.8-place finish that bests Blaney’s 30.5 mark in the same races last year. Annett has also experienced a bit of the bizarre: He ran as high as 19th at Dover, but encountered front end damage via the track’s crumbling concrete, a flat tire and a broken shock mount, all in 100-lap span. He was registered with a 35th-place finish.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 4)
Replaced David Stremme (prior to team change). Whitt has the potential to be better than what his replacement-level minus-0.019 PEER indicates. Caught in a tumultuous season that already spans two different teams (Swan Racing and BK Racing), he hasn’t had the equipment he needs to showcase what made him a hot commodity in the USAC ranks, but he also isn’t distancing himself from the previous occupants of his equipment. In eight races with Swan, he averaged a 30.9-place finish, while David Stremme also averaged a 30.9 for them in the same races in 2013. In the five-race jaunt from Richmond to Dover with BK, Whitt averaged a 28.8-place finish, which is more than a position off of what David Reutimann was able to do (27.6) at the same facilities.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Replaced Travis Kvapil. Bowman sat down with Athlon Sports earlier this year and discussed some of the strange goings-on he experienced in his initial starts. Weirdness aside — the battery pack fell out of his car at Bristol — he has still managed to be an immediate upgrade over Kvapil, both in on-track results (Bowman’s 32nd-place average trumps Kvapil’s 33.8 from last year) and off-track conduct (Kvapil pleaded guilty to domestic assault charges late last year). There is room for improvement, though. He hasn’t cracked the top half of the field (21st or better) for a finish yet, which has been done nine times by six different drivers with similar average running positions.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
Replaced David Reutimann. BK Racing went younger by 21 years when they let Reutimann walk out the door and replaced him with Truex. Though this was a long-haul decision, it hasn’t yet panned out. Reutimann averaged a 29.5-place finish through the first 13 races last season, while Truex has an average of 35.3 through 11 races and has failed to qualify for two. That large gap in results could easily shrink once Truex’s series-worst 0.55-per-race crash frequency dissipates.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.