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 analyzes a top rookie’s consistency and asks whether it matters.
With a finish deviation of 12.4, Kyle Larson is the most inconsistent rookie this year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. This is something that’s been noted on NASCAR telecasts — “The key to him being in the Chase is he’s gotta be more consistent” — and a weakness about which I wrote in July.
It’s not something that will keep him from winning the Rookie of the Year award, though. The youngster tops all rookies in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) and ranks in the top 5 among all drivers in adjusted pass efficiency. Larson and his No. 42 team are also the best team with a rookie driver according to their 16th-place average finish, which is ultimately a better barometer for performance than consistency. In terms of consistency, Larson’s poor deviation — a perfect deviation is 0.0 — actually falls in line with some memorable rookie seasons as the chart to the right illustrates.
Among the aforementioned drivers, all of which had ballyhooed rookie seasons and went on to become household names within the sport, Dale Earnhardt and his Rod Osterlund-owned team were the most consistent with a finish deviation of 9.2. Compared to 2014’s roster of teams, that’d make a unit that captured one win and the fifth-best average finish in 1979 the 12th-most consistent series regular, directly behind Casey Mears, whose 20.8-place average finish holds a 7.7 deviation. Would you rather have a relative lightning rod like Earnhardt, or a “steady hand” like Mears? It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?
Consistency, especially for rookies, is a bit of a crock.
It’s easy to confuse the definition of consistency and assume that it is exclusively synonymous with the act of being a good race team. Cole Whitt, with a 5.9 finish deviation, and David Ragan (6.0), are drivers for the most consistent teams in the Cup Series; however, their average finishes are 30.4 and 29.4, respectively, meaning that consistent mark equates to being consistently bad. Making room for hits and misses — the three worst deviations in the series belong to Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson — is practically mandatory when evaluating rookies. In baseball, a high strikeout rate can be tolerated if the home runs are abundant. With Larson, a high crash frequency (he averages 0.44 crashes per race) should be excused as long as the team is racking up a hearty helping of top-10 finishes; 44 percent of his results this year were within the top 10 positions. Earnhardt’s top-10 finish rate in that stellar ‘79 season was just under 41 percent. Tony Stewart’s rate in 1999 was 35 percent.
And no, “gotta be more consistent” isn’t, and never was, the key to Larson making the Chase. The key for him earlier this season was to amass as many good finishes as possible. The key now is to win at Richmond. As zany as Race No. 26 has been in recent seasons, the industry would be nonplussed if the rookie did, in fact, break through with a victory.
Consistency isn’t necessarily a sign of strength. Piecing together a race, an admitted early-season foible, helped in Whitt finishing in the bottom half of fields 92 percent of the time this season, creating a brand of consistency from which he’d be happy to escape.
Even the most successful rookies and teams have inconsistencies. Jeff Gordon hit the real and metaphorical rookie walls with great aplomb, while the brand-spanking new No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team suffered 11 mechanical DNFs, four of which were directly caused by handling miscues by rookie crew chief Ray Evernham. Out of 21 races, Richard Petty suffered 11 DNFs and all but two were related to mechanical mishaps. Like Larson, Gordon and Petty marveled at various points during their maiden seasons.
Gordon opened 1993 by winning his Daytona 500 qualifying race and proceeded to score clean finishes of fifth, sixth, fourth, eighth, 11th, 11th and second in his first seven races without incident. In the 10 races Petty managed to finish, he scored nine top-10 results. Those flares helped make them Rookies of the Year and identified them as talents to watch in the foreseeable future. It’s safe to say that Larson’s first year in Cup stands on equal footing.
Would Larson and his Chris Heroy-led team like to iron out the wrinkles that plague them? Absolutely. But Chase or no Chase, it’s been a fine start to what will likely be a very successful career for the kid that was a full-time Dirt Sprint Car driver just three years ago.
Larson, as a rookie, is a terrific producer, highly efficient passer, efficient finisher and a plus closer. Being “more consistent” is a vague suggestion that isn’t entirely accurate.
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.