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.
600 miles of racing at Charlotte might be a NASCAR tradition. It’s also utter ridiculousness.
A trump card to the Indianapolis 500, the race formerly known as the World 600 — as in, “What could possibly be bigger than the Indianapolis 500?” — is a four-hour slow-burn endurance race that crosses from day into night. A joke among fans is that you can watch the green flag drop, go see two movies and come back for the finish. For drivers, the length of the race is no joking matter.
It’s a beast of an event for competitors, and one historically kind to young drivers. The likes of Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth scored their first wins in the Coca-Cola 600, but they had a lot of help. Their crew chiefs at the time — Ray Evernham, Jimmy Makar and Robbie Reiser, respectively — were titans in their time atop the pit box and still roam the garages to this day, commanding respect from those hoping to follow in their footsteps. Each rookie in this year’s crop has a race-caller prepared for an event such as this in which strategy can heavily dictate the outcome.
Though caution trends are futile, one might surmise that in a 400-lap race around the 1.5-mile quad-oval track, drivers tend to pace themselves a bit more than usual. It means less aggression, which could mean fewer cautions. A dearth of caution flags creates the need to pit under green-flag conditions. Green-flag pitting allows crew chiefs to enact short-pitting strategy in an attempt to pass cars without actually passing cars; using lap time falloff as a way to jump the cars in front of them for track position. It’s called jumping, which is measured by a metric called jump plus/minus.
In this week’s Rookie Report rankings, we’ll take a closer look at the position jumping capabilities of the crew chiefs working on behalf of their driver to manufacture track position:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1) Everything about Larson’s rookie season has been above average, but his team’s ability to pick up positions during green-flag pit cycles has been mundane. Larson lost a total of 17 spots across 15 green-flag cycles in the first 11 races. To be fair to crew chief Chris Heroy, 18 spots were due to Larson’s pit-road speeding infraction — of which he was awarded a pass-through penalty — at Las Vegas. With that stop omitted, they hold a balanced jump plus/minus of plus-1. Luckily for Heroy, they are getting track position the old-fashioned way; Larson happens to be one of the top five passers in the series with an adjusted pass efficiency of 53.3 percent.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2) Dillon and crew chief Gil Martin are the best closers in the Cup Series by virtue of their 90.91 percent position retention and 36 positions gained in the final 10 percent of races, so it’s clear that Martin is making effective use of his adjustment opportunities with each pit stop; however, their green-flag pit cycle gains have been minimal. They’ve maintained their position 53.33 percent of the time and only gained one position across 15 cycles. That plus-1 jump number represents a drop for Martin, who gained 16 positions across green-flag cycles in 2013 with driver Kevin Harvick.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3) A passing slump by Tony Stewart in the beginning of the 2013 season forced then-crew chief Steve Addington to target short-pitting tactics in an attempt to gain track position. Through Stewart’s abbreviated season, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team was an adept jumper, earning a plus-18 with Stewart and a plus-4 with Austin Dillon behind the wheel. This year, Addington is applying the same philosophy with rookie Justin Allgaier for HScott Motorsports. Allgaier ranks first among rookies in positions jumped (plus-11) and is tied for first in position retention during green-flag pit cycles (73.33 percent).
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 4) Outside of a half-dozen races atop the pit box, Randy Cox is tackling the Cup Series for the first time in 2014. Swan Racing and BK Racing might not have provided him with the best, top-of-the-line equipment, but his pit strategy decisions have resembled those of a veteran race-caller. His 73.33 percent position retention across green-flag cycles ensures that Cole Whitt has just under a three-quarter chance to keep his position on long runs, and his plus-8 spots gained ranks second among crew chiefs with rookie drivers.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 5) Bono Manion’s full-season effort for Jamie McMurray in 2013 was rather ordinary. They finished the season with a plus-2 positions gained during green-flag pit cycles. This year with Michael Annett, he has helped maintain the team’s position just under 75 percent of the time and netted the rookie four extra positions on the track. Unfortunately, his yellow-flag pit work has garnered mixed results. It came under scrutiny last week when he made a strange decision to forego tires in the Sprint Showdown, propelling Annett to the lead, after which they quickly dropped 16 positions.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6) A rookie in need of track position — his average running position through 11 races, 32.69, ranks 36th in the series — is Bowman, who hasn’t been helped much by crew chief Dave Winston. The bad news is that they have lost a total of eight positions on the racetrack because of green-flag pitting, but the good news is that their retention (66.67 percent) indicates they maintain or gain positions more often than they lose them. With time, that minus-8 should become a more balanced tally.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7) Truex has undergone a crew chief change, from Dale Ferguson to Doug Richert, and so far it appears to be for the better. Ferguson kept Whitt’s position 60 percent of the time, but lost him three positions during green-flag cycles. Richert’s retention is 20 percent better and his jump plus/minus is a balanced zero. There isn’t much to write home about in regards to track position attainment, but the No. 83 BK Racing program is at least heading in a positive direction.