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.
Once the checkered flag falls on this weekend’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the second half of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is officially in full swing. Based on one rookie’s first-half performance, we may already have the Rookie of the Year decided.
That outstanding newbie is our number one again in this week’s Rookie Report rankings:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
My pick, if it were up to a vote, for Rookie of the Year at the season’s halfway point is an easy one: It’s Larson. He is the third-most efficient passer in the series — he trails only Jeff Gordon (56.55 percent) and Kevin Harvick (53.96) with his 53.23 percent adjusted pass efficiency — and his three top-5 finishes and seven top-10 finishes has a team that finished a lowly 22nd in the 2013 owner standings in legitimate Chase contention. His Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) is a healthy 2.044, which currently ranks ninth among all drivers.
Perhaps the ROTY award is too small of a reach for a driver aiming to become the best Cup rookie since Tony Stewart? The Chase — which now takes the winningest 16 drivers — is no longer a pipe dream for this rookie. The simple way for him to qualify in is to win a race. Between now and the Chase opener, he gets another whack at Pocono, where he finished fifth last month in the Cup race and won in ARCA Series competition, and Bristol, where he finished second in two of his last three Nationwide Series starts. If he wants to get into the playoffs the hard way, a reduction in crashing is in order. Counting his blown-tire wall slam at Kentucky, he crashed seven times in the first 17 races, for a per-race crash frequency of 0.41, one of the five worst frequencies in all of Cup.
Regardless of whether he makes it into this year’s free-for-all Chase, he has provided a spectacularly entertaining first season in NASCAR’s premier series.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Following the Dover race, Dillon’s average running position was 19.6 and his car ranked 24th in NASCAR’s average green-flag speed rankings. In the four-race span since, his average speed rank remained the same but he chipped over one spot — to 18.3 — off of his average running position. That’s a positive sign.
Improvement in running whereabouts is just the first step, though. The steeper competition is wreaking havoc on Dillon; his adjusted pass efficiency in the last four races is 46.08 percent (an average of 5.2 percent worse than his running position’s expected efficiency), down from 49.07 percent (only 1.75 percent worse than expected) prior to Pocono. On 11 restarts from within the first seven rows in the last four races, he retained his restart position 63.5 percent of the time and attained a net loss of three positions.
3. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)
Annett is one of two rookie drivers (Dillon is the other) to have finished inside the top half of the field in three of his last four races. In that span, he has been a mover in traffic, sporting a 50.99 percent adjusted pass efficiency (he passed more than he was passed) that sits 2.2 percent above what was expected from a car in his running position. That’s a big gain over the 47.25 percent efficiency and minus-1.88 percent surplus he acquired through Dover. He continues to be the most pleasant surprise of the 2014 rookie class.
4. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Allgaier’s PEER is a hair above replacement level (0.029), but there is evident room for growth as he is leaving so much on the table at the end of races. His No. 51 is running in the top 15 just under 9 percent more often that he’s actually finishing in the top 15 and, to date, he and crew chief Steve Addington have lost a robust 50 positions in the red zone (final 10 percent) of races. The numbers suggest that better finishes are attainable, but he still has to go out and get them.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 6)
Whitt has speed and results over his BK Racing stable mates, but he has yet to do much with them. He ranks higher than fellow rookie Michael Annett in average green-flag speed, but Annett has managed to finish in the top half of fields over 17 percent more often. What’s eating Whitt? It might be his blah closing numbers or inexperience navigating through heavy traffic. He has dropped 14 positions in the red zone and is seeing his raw speed become neutralized without clean air; his 34th-place speed in traffic ranking is lumped in with other BK drivers Alex Bowman (35th) and Ryan Truex (36th), despite holding a four-car separation between them in the average green-flag speed rankings.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 5)
Recall when I mentioned that Bowman had the lowest crash frequency among rookies? Since I wrote that in early May, the youngest driver in the Cup Series has poured on the crashing, doing so five times in the last six races. He is now the most frequent crasher among active rookies (0.47 per-race frequency). On the bright side, Bowman and crew chief Dave Winston are still closing about as well as can be expected; they’ve gained 17 red zone positions thanks to a 100 percent retention rate in races in which they were running at the finish.
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7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
A driver not ready for the Cup Series is driving for a team not fit for the Cup Series. We still haven’t seen much from Truex, who is largely finishing where he runs and is now on his third crew chief of the season in Joe Williams. Their goal for the second half of this season should be to do one thing well — Passing? Closing? Avoiding crashes? — as something to build on in the off chance this team remains intact for 2015.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.