Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith evaluates the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report includes twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with drivers and more.
Today, David ponders the relationship between young drivers and crashing.
Too often in auto racing, young drivers are haplessly deemed too reckless, chronic wadders of equipment that they don’t appreciate because they’ve been handed everything on a silver platter up until this point. It causes team owners, trigger-happy in every other aspect of the industry, to place their hiring gun gently on the table and slowly back away. They got into racing to race and win, after all, not wreck.
In some regards, this notion is true. Even this year with a talented rookie class far beyond anything we’ve seen in recent seasons, four of these whiny whippersnappers rank among the top 10 most frequent crashers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, while two others in that category are in their second full season. It’s probably not a coincidence that the two rookies with the highest per-race crash frequency, Parker Kligerman and Ryan Truex, are the two rookies that now without rides for the remaining seven races.
CRASHES PER RACE
Not every young driver crashes, but most certainly do. Crashing is used an excuse to part ways with fresh-faced gas-mashers when other elements of the driver-team relationship aren’t going swimmingly. When these drivers demonstrate something to offset their high crash totals, reprieves are awarded. Consider the following:
- Greg Biffle crashed nine times in his first 11 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts. Because Biffle showed such unbridled aggression and came highly recommended by fellow Michigan man Benny Parsons, Jack Roush didn’t pull the plug on this young driver experiment in 1998. Biffle, who has crashed only 13 times in his last 101 Cup Series starts (a three-year crash frequency of 0.13), is now the longest-tenured Roush Fenway Racing driver and starting in 2015, will be the team’s bell cow.
- In Kyle Busch’s initial six-race Cup Series schedule in 2004, he crashed out of three races in Hendrick Motorsports equipment, never finishing higher than 24th. To this day, his aggression precedes him and he may or may not have transformed into a serial crasher for Joe Gibbs Racing, as he holds a 0.41 crash frequency this season, accounting for 12 crashes in a 29-race span. He crashed 15 times last season, for a per-race frequency of 0.42 (the second-highest rate among series regulars). Somehow, his accident-prone ways have never been a problem, at least publicly.
- Kyle Larson’s 0.38 crash frequency is one of the 10 highest in the series, but it’s doubtful that the show this runaway Rookie of the Year favorite is putting on is off-putting. Chip Ganassi Racing lacked the kind of spark Larson provides since Sterling Marlin came within a fractured vertebra of winning the 2002 Cup Series championship. As long as he keeps producing top-10 finishes with historic regularity, the fab shop won’t grumble too much about Yung Money’s crash damage.
Crashing, contrary to what’s said on telecasts or in team-issued press releases, isn’t solely due to poor luck. The ability to avoid crashes is a characteristic that teams covet. Biffle, a free agent up until this summer when he extended his stay at Roush Fenway, was an intriguing item on the market solely because of his crash avoidance. Aggression can be calculated or reckless. Most of the time, drivers learn the difference; however, the learning process might be born anew every time a driver is dropped into a new, more competitive situation.
Ricky Stenhouse’s learning process is still in progress. His flirtation with the walls of every speedway in America began (and ended) in his first USAC pavement start at Iowa Speedway. He was nicknamed “Wrecky” during his lone ARCA Series season, still showcasing enough talent to go into the year’s final race as a championship contender. His crashing was so rampant in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010 that Roush Fenway benched him for a race, but he ultimately ended the season with a 0.44 crash frequency – innocuous compared to that of fellow Roush driver Colin Braun’s 0.63 – and earned identical 0.18 frequencies in 2011 and 2012 en route to consecutive series titles.
Currently en route to finishing his second full season in the Cup Series, Stenhouse is back to the crashing phase of his assimilation. His per-race crash count has doubled this season — he crashed eight times in 36 races last year (for a 0.22 frequency) — having crashed 13 times in 2014’s first 29 races, 0.45 times per race. He’s slated to return to Roush Fenway next season.
Of course, some rookies just have a penchant for avoiding collision. Of all of Austin Dillon’s faults, crashing isn’t one of them. His 0.14 crash frequency is pristine compared to the average Cup Series driver (0.27 for a driver with at least six starts this season). He scored low frequencies in his two full Nationwide Series seasons (0.15 in both 2012 and 2013), crashing 10 times in the span of 66 races. His brother Ty has a similar knack, having crashed just once in 2014, resulting in top-20 finishes in all 28 of his Nationwide Series starts.
Crashing acting as a detriment to a young driver’s career is merely a convenient excuse. Good teams with the tendency of being sound talent evaluators don’t home in on crash totals. Being a talented, speedy racer outside of the crashing is enough to earn leeway that tentative team owners don’t readily make available.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.