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.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off this week and will return next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to begin a homestretch that includes 17 consecutive races. For the seven rookies that comprise this year’s freshman class, it’s a chance to improve upon the facets of the sport that have been holding them back from better on-track production.
The wide eyes should be sharpening because, after all, this bunch is closer to not being rookies with the season over halfway complete.
This week’s Rookie Report rankings focus on the current weak spots of each rookie and the game plans that are necessary to get better:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
Weakness: He isn’t a front-runner.
How to Improve: There is precedence for Larson’s lack of laps led. He ranked sixth in this category, only leading 64 laps, during the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season in which we was crowned champion. He led 102 laps in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition in 2013. Prior to last week’s race at New Hampshire, where he led 14 laps, he had only led seven. It’s just not in his wiring, it seems, to be a race-long dominator. Eventually, he will have to shift in this direction. Only one driver with an average running position lower than Larson’s 18.5 — Aric Almirola (18.8) — has scored a win this season, and even that victory could be saddled with an asterisk.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
Weakness: He is passing below value.
How to Improve: He won the 2013 Nationwide Series championship despite passing rather horrendously (48.33 percent efficiency), but he won’t crack open a bottle of champagne any time soon in the Cup Series while sporting a similar 48.86 percent efficiency through 19 races. It falls 1.8 percent below the expected efficiency of a driver in his 19.3-place average running position. Considering the other drivers near his running whereabouts — Aric Almirola (18.8-place average running position, minus-0.06 percent surplus value), Tony Stewart (19.0, plus-1.4), Marcos Ambrose (20.2, minus-0.18) and Martin Truex (20.6, minus-0.17) — all have more balanced SPVs, it’s clear that Dillon is allowing himself to get out-muscled. The good news is that passing is a learned trait, and as soon as Dillon learns to pass for position and defend said position, with his strong closing numbers he’ll be in regular contention for top-10 finishes.
3. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 3)
Weakness: He is inconsistent.
How to Improve: Per his 7.1 finish deviation, Annett is the second-most inconsistent finisher among rookies (Larson’s is tops, but I’m inclined to settle for his Daytona follies as long as he rewards me with top-5 finishes). There aren’t statistical fluctuations — in average speed rank, in positions accrued on pit road (or via short-pitting) or in upticks in crashing — that warrant such change. The Michael Annett that showed up during the Pocono-to-Daytona stretch was one that scored four finishes inside the top half of the field during a five-race span; the one who finished 32nd at New Hampshire didn’t look like the same guy. Maybe it’s his affinity for the larger tracks skewing the results, but some enhanced week-to-week focus is needed in order to close the season the right way.
4. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 4)
Weakness: He isn’t closing out races.
How to Improve: Allgaier’s 66 positions lost from the race’s 90-percent mark to completion — the “red zone” — ranks as the third-worst tally among all teams. Whether it is a crash out of the race like last Sunday at New Hampshire or a miscue late on the final restart at Richmond, things tend to go wrong for the HScott Motorsports bunch during crunch time. To be clear, he doesn’t need to all of a sudden become a plus-infinity closer. He just needs to maintain the running position he has at the start of the red zone, and holding onto to 23rd or 24th at the end of the race — his average running spot at that point is 23.5 — shouldn’t be daunting. Keeping his spot won’t earn back all the positions lost during the first half of the year, but it’ll be a step in cauterizing the wound.
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5. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 5)
Weakness: He is too conservative.
How to Improve: Maybe one could survive on a diet of 27th- and 28th-place finishes — Whitt has nine of them this year — but every now and then a splurge for something greater can provide a serious health benefit. Per his 5.5 finish deviation, Whitt is the second-most consistent results-getter in the series, but with a 30.5-place average finish that isn’t all that spectacular. We have yet to see what Whitt and his team looks like when going for broke. This BK Racing unit is the best in the stable according to a bevy of peripheral numbers, but acting as a metronome of mundane finishes doesn’t take advantage of the team’s better-than-it-should-be stature.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6)
Weakness: He is passing inefficiently.
How to Improve: If it weren’t for Michael McDowell’s 43.47 percent adjusted pass efficiency, Bowman (45.86 percent) would be the least efficient passer in the Cup Series. An inability to climb through traffic is a problem, but it’s not an interminable one. Passing can improve, as we saw with several of his rookie cohorts in last week’s column, but he is on his second consecutive year of poor efficiency after notching a 48.13 percent mark — anything below 50 percent warrants a negative pass differential — last season in the Nationwide Series. Lucky for him, he’s made nice with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, all of whom have made killings thanks to their heightened passing ability. Some pointers from them could expedite an otherwise slow-burn process.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7)
Weakness: He crashes too often.
How to Improve: I analyzed his passing splits last week and though Truex has improved his traffic navigation, it has yet to lead to elevated results. Sure, his revolving door of crew chiefs could do a significantly better job of finding spots through short-pitting tactics, but Truex’s best bet would be to stay off the wall. Per his series-worst terminal crash frequency (once every four races), his crashes aren’t exactly routine scratches and dents. This could very well be something that dissipates over time, but Truex would be served well to either keep his head on a swivel or purchase his spotter a new pair of binoculars.
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.