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NASCAR Rookie Report: Larson, Dillon proving able closers in Cup Series


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.

It’s rough being a rookie in the current day NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It makes sense when you think about it: Where else is a driver going to compete against 42 of the world’s best stock car drivers? Though NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series offer a fertile cultivating ground, the Cup Series newcomers tend to struggle in their initial season at the premier level. Of the 27 Cup Series rookies dating back to 2006, only Denny Hamlin scored a Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) above 1.000, a number that signifies a weekly race win contender, all cars being equal.

So forgive the new kids if they need a little help from their friends. Auto racing is a team sport after all, disguised as an individual sport. Sure, some lucky rookies are haves and most nowadays are have-nots, but deep in a 43-car field, teammates — and that’s crew chiefs, engineers and pit crew — can still have an impact regardless of the equipment’s strength. Is a crew chief setting up his driver’s car for a killer close to a long race? Are the crew chief and crew helping manufacture track position during races with green-flag pit cycles (tracked with a metric known as jump plus/minus)? Sometimes the newbies just need a boost.

This week’s ranking focuses on the rookie drivers and the teams that have their backs:

1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1) 
If not for a pass-thru penalty during a green-flag pit cycle at Las Vegas that cost them 18 positions, Larson and the No. 42 team out of Chip Ganassi Racing would have every peripheral metric in their favor. Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy are proving to be able closers — they haven’t lost a single position in the final 10 percent of races, gaining at a plus-10.4 percent rate (an average of two spots per race). Larson is also seeing his exceptional passing from the Nationwide Series translate to Sundays, ranking in the top 10 for adjusted pass efficiency (52.33 percent). His fifth-place finish Monday at Texas was his second top-5 score of the year, and likely just the tip of the iceberg in what’s shaping up to be the best rookie campaign since Hamlin’s full-time foray into Cup.

2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2) 
Dillon and his No. 3 team at Richard Childress Racing are the most artful closers in the Cup Series. Between Dillon’s now-serviceable driving (he sports a 1.000 PEER, ranking him 22nd among series regulars in production) and crew chief Gil Martin’s ever-improving single-race setups (per NASCAR’s speed by quarter metric, they rank 24th in first quarter speed and improve to a ranking of 19th in fourth quarter speed), they’ve yet to drop a position in the final 10 percent of races — a perfect base retention percentage of 100 — and are averaging a gain of 3.6 positions per race during that final kick to the finish.

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3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3) 
Allgaier and his Steve Addington-led HScott Motorsports team have finished 24th or better in each of the last three races, exceeding their season-long 26.2-place average running position by two spots. Chock full of value, the No. 51 team is cleanly navigating through their on-track whereabouts. Addington has picked up Allgaier five positions through eight green-flag pit cycles dating back to Phoenix, while the driver is a positive value passer — something he touched on in our Q&A last week — with a plus-2.74 percent surplus that ranks as the eighth most valuable in the series.

4. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 6)
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 4)
In terms of production, Annett and Whitt are toss-ups, displaying identical above-replacement level production ratings of 0.036. Where Annett trumps Whitt in this week’s ranking is passing. Their adjusted pass efficiencies — Annett’s is a 48.49 percent, while Whitt’s is a 48.38 — are staggeringly close, but Annett’s plus-2.48 percent surplus passing value, which measures whether a driver passes more or less efficiently than the expected output of a driver in that running position, is better than Whitt’s plus-1.62 and occurring two positions higher, on average, in the running order. Annett’s also receiving less help than Whitt in green-flag pit cycles. Whitt has been given four extra positions by crew chief Randy Cox in the last six races, while Annett has been awarded just one from Kevin Manion in that same span.

6. Parker Kligerman, No. 30(previous: 5)
Brutal. Kligerman has been running at the race’s 10 percent-to-go mark just three times in seven events (his average running position at that point in a race is 37.6), so strong closing hasn’t been an option. Neither has jumping positions during green-flag pit cycles. Crew chief Steve Lane has provided Kligerman a jump plus/minus of plus-2 for the season, but the No. 30 team has rarely found itself on the lead lap and able to take full advantage of the tactic. Through the first seven races, they’ve yet to finish on the lead lap.

7. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 7)
It hasn't been a glamorous first season for Bowman, but there certainly have been some positive takeaways to this point. He scored two finishes of 23rd or better in BK Racing equipment (at Daytona and Fontana) in his first seven races and, while his 33.8-place average running position isn’t stellar, he’s at least averaging a plus-1.22 percent surplus passing value from that position. A little help on green-flag pit cycles — crew chief Dave Winston’s jump plus/minus is zero — could aid a little bit of his running woes.

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8. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 8)

Truex failed to qualify for the second time this season (his first was at Daytona) last weekend in Texas, after recording a lap eight tenths of a second slower than that of BK Racing stable mate Bowman. Though some might be surprised by his rough start, the most telling number may be the sheer lack of big car experience. Truex, at age 22, has just 69 races under his belt across NASCAR’s three major divisions, the K&N Pro Series and the ARCA Series. For comparison’s sake, Bowman, who is two years younger, has made 78 such starts to date. Truex needs races and not qualifying on speed stunts his development as a racer.

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.