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.
This year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class has collectively lived up to the hype. Billed as the best rookie class since 2006 — one containing Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex — the 2014 crop might be short on wins, but they were big on immediate impact, despite most of the class wheeling less-than-ideal equipment, and produced one bona fide superstar.
They lost the battle if you’re solely staring at top-10 finishes — the 2014 class, led by Kyle Larson has combined for 21 top-10 finishes with two races remaining, while five different drivers in the class of ’06 united for 44 top-10 results. If you’re scoping each driver individually, though, and isolate the driver from his team, the Production in Equal Equipment Ratings (PEER) for the ’14 group are stronger than those of their predecessors.
Denny Hamlin was the last rookie to score a serviceable PEER — a weighted results measurement on MotorsportsAnalytics.com — with a rating of 1.986 that ranked seventh in the Cup Series that season. Larson, presently with a 2.324 PEER, will shatter Hamlin’s effort. He currently ranks as the sixth-most productive driver in the series this season.
Of the eight drivers that began the season as rookies, seven (87.5 percent of the class) will end the season with ratings above replacement level, a mark 16 percent better than what the 2006 group was able to accomplish.
No driver in either of the two classes shone brighter than Larson, who ends the season as Athlon Sports’ number one rookie, topping the final Rookie Report Ranking of 2014:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Larson ranks fourth among series regulars in adjusted pass efficiency, carrying a 52.96 percent mark to Phoenix this weekend. He ranks fifth among regulars in surplus passing value, passing at an efficiency 2.14 percent better than what a driver with his average running position is expected to produce. He ranks sixth in PEER. Unlike Denny Hamlin, he didn’t make the Chase and he hasn’t won, but that shouldn’t take away from what’s been a brilliant season by a quick-assimilating rookie. The sky is the limit, and his season it worthy of its own column, coming next week.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
The chatter was somewhat nauseating early on and none of it had anything to do with him (it had everything to do with the color and number of his car). After all the nostalgic nonsense settled, we were left with a young driver still trying to find his identity as a racer while ironing out some wrinkles in his repertoire. He’ll end the season with a sub-serviceable PEER and sub-par passing numbers, but there has been some notable improvement. His current Chase-only PEER stands at 1.034 through eight races, an increase over the 0.632 that spans his entire year to date. Based purely on average finish, Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team’s 16.7-place mark is better than those of Kasey Kahne (17.7), Brian Vickers (18.4) and Tony Stewart (19.9). Passing remains a sore subject for a driver who struggled overtaking for position in NASCAR’s lower divisions, but it’s clear that if he ever develops a passing game he’ll be a consummate Chase contender.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 4)
I’ll remember this team’s closing problem — they’ve lost 59 positions in the final 10 percent of races — above anything else about them in 2014, but it’s mostly due to a disastrous early part of the season. Through the first 21 races, Allgaier and crew chief Steve Addington gave up 74 red zone positions. They’ve gained 15 across the 12 races they’ve competed in since, a sign that things might be coming together in time for a formidable finish to an otherwise decent rookie season. Allgaier is a plus passer through 33 races this year, sporting a 50.88 percent adjusted efficiency and a plus-1.53 percent surplus value.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 3)
It’s almost as if Whitt and longtime crew chief Randy Cox have built their own wing onto the BK Racing shop, because they don’t appear to be from the same stable that trots out entries for Alex Bowman and whatever other veteran hanger-on the team’s execs fancy on a particular weekend. The cars in which Whitt and Cox invested sweat equity were faster, per NASCAR’s average green-flag speed measurement, than entries from Tommy Baldwin Racing and Front Row Motorsports. Whitt, sometime after the Darlington race, cooly learned that 500-mile races were feats of patience, not pizazz. His race approach shifted accordingly and resulted in six of his best eight finishes this year coming in the second half of the season.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Inconsistency might be tolerable when you’re Kyle Busch, whose 14.0 finish deviation on top of his 16.5-place average result is the most inconsistent among series regulars. When you’re a rookie with a 29.3-place average finish, a relatively inconsistent deviation is troublesome and that’s what is plaguing Annett, with a 7.3 finish deviation, this season. His rookie-year results have very much been trick or treat — his three most recent results at quad-oval tracks were straightforward finishes of 21st at Atlanta, a four laps-down 33rd-place effort at Charlotte and a lead-lap 22nd-place run at Texas. With more consistency — and that should be the focus in his sophomore campaign — he’d be the best driver Tommy Baldwin Racing has ever had.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Watch Bowman and you’ll get a sense that he’s capable of more — he passes the eye test and is the youngest driver in the series this season. But his results on paper do nothing to support the senses. His 0.103 PEER is barely above replacement level, his 45.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency is the third worst in the series and his 0.41 per race crash frequency was a smidge too high for a race team on a tight budget. Since I’m not inside the halls of BK Racing, I don’t know whether Bowman will, or did enough to, be back with them next season; however, I don’t believe it’s fair to assume he is as good now as he’s ever going to be. He needs seasoning — he spent exactly one season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, one season in K&N East and competed in a smatter of ARCA Series races over the last three years. The team that provides it might reap the rewards of a young driver coming into his own.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83
Truex initially struggled and grew to struggle less — his passing did improve, but he still holds the second-worst pass efficiency (44.9 percent) in the series. BK Racing parted with him following the Chicagoland race. While he is still contractually tied to Richard Petty Motorsports, with whom he signed a development contract in 2013, the future is murky for the two-time champion of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
8. Parker Kligerman, No. 30
Kligerman had the year from hell, registering five finishes of 40th or worse in eight races. He also amassed a crash frequency of 0.50 — tied as the second highest in the series — and failed to find a landing spot after Swan Racing closed its doors. The good news is that he is currently an entertaining, stat-savvy analyst for NBC Sports; however, he is a talent deserving of a ride somewhere, evident by his past efforts in the Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.