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NASCAR Rookie Report: Kyle Larson makes a statement in Fontana


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 driver in this year’s rookie class.

Auto racing is an unfair game. Organizations aren’t spread across the country in rich and poor markets like franchises in basketball or baseball, but there is an equivalent to big market teams. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing aren’t located in Los Angeles or Manhattan, but they’d certainly be comparable to the Lakers and Dodgers and Knicks and Yankees.

Naturally, if there’s an equivalent to the big spenders in their given sport, then there’s an avatar for the small-budget operators as well. Where we see the major difference between the haves and have-nots is the results sheet.

When NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson finished 19th at Phoenix driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, a team ubiquitous across various forms of four-wheel motorsports, his post-race response on Twitter was subdued, as if he expected more. When Josh Wise, a journeyman driver with upstart Phil Parsons Racing finished 23rd two weeks later at Bristol, he was over the moon.

Finishing 19th is better than finishing 23rd, so the reactions seem peculiar. They’re odd only because both drivers are realistic about their goals. Not every team has the personnel or equipment necessary to make a top-10 finish a barometric basement for a decent weekend. That’s why I attempt to extract a driver’s ability independent of personnel and equipment in my Production in Equal Equipment Rating, or PEER, an objective measuring of a driver’s results-getting ability.

PEER is key in this week’s ranking:

1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1) — Larson had a realistic chance at the end of the Fontana race to pull a Carl Edwards — that’d be winning both his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series race and first Cup race in the same weekend — before settling for a second-place run behind Kyle Busch. There will be more shots at a trophy, if PEER is any indication. Among all series regulars, Larson ranks 13th with a 1.850 rating. That rating is tops among rookies and is sort of a rarity nowadays; the only rookie since 2006 to finish a season with a PEER above 1.000 was Denny Hamlin. 49.8 percent of Larson’s laps are being run inside the top 15, which is probably why he’d view a finish of 16th or worse, like the one at Phoenix, as unacceptable.

2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2) — Last I ranked Dillon, I harped about his poor pass efficiency, both through the first three races and in 2013 across Cup and Nationwide. Don’t look now, but Dillon — without the aid of a single green-flag pit cycle at Bristol or Fontana — has pushed two straight races of 50 percent efficiency or better to the middle of the table, demonstrating something we aren’t used to seeing from him. He’s not a serviceable producer, a la Larson, as he’s in a Cadillac compared to what most other drivers have and has just three finishes of 11th or better to show for it.

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3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 5) — Two weeks ago, Allgaier took to a Bristol track on which he has a Nationwide Series win. His acumen at the half-mile facility translated from one car to its higher horsepower brother, as he finished 17th. The result wasn’t a fluke by any stretch. Allgaier averaged a 21st-place running position on the day and recorded an adjusted pass efficiency of 54.17 percent, almost five percentage points better than his average running position’s expected output. He ranks third behind Larson and Dillon in PEER among all rookies.

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4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 3) — Whitt isn’t running in the top 15 much — he’s done so in just under four percent of all laps this season — but proved himself capable of finishing just outside the top 15 last Sunday in Fontana, driving his Swan Racing entry to a season-best 18th-place finish. For those keeping score at home, that was the best result for the Swan Racing operation since the 18th-place at Texas last November by Parker Kligerman.

5. Parker Kligerman, No. 30(previous: 4) — Kligerman has had a forgettable first five races of the 2014 season, so bad that he’s already let me know he intends to make history out of his poor start. The latest was an incident sparked by Casey Mears in Fontana. His 0.000 PEER represents exactly what he’s been able to produce (nothing), which, if his accolades in Nationwide or Trucks translate, could easily be corrected with one clean race weekend. That rough-and-tumble Martinsville, a track that saw over a fifth of its race run under caution last fall, is next on the schedule and might not appear appetizing for a driver with 0.60 crash frequency.

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6. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 6) — With each passing race, Annett finished better than he did the race prior. His most recent handiwork was a 19th-place run at Fontana, a fairly large overachievement noticed by someone who can sympathize with having to overachieve. Amazingly, it could have been better. Running 17th with less than 30 laps to go, Annett’s team was penalized for a tire rolling outside of his pit box. He then proceeded to drive from 29th to 19th in the remaining laps.

7. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 7) — A PEER of 0.000 reflects a 31st-place average finish, but doesn’t yet reflect “the little things” Bowman has been doing. He finished 10 laps down at Bristol, due primarily to the battery falling out of his car in the first quarter of the race, but he still managed to score the race’s highest passing value (a plus-23.43 percent, along with a 67.74 percent adjusted efficiency). He and crew chief Dave Winston have also been dutiful closers, retaining their position with 10 percent of a race to go 100 percent of the time and advancing an average of two positions per race during that final window.

8. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 8) — Among Cup Series regulars with at least four starts, not one driver has a worse top 15 running percentage than Truex’s 0.1 percent. It’s still incredibly early in the season and there’s plenty of time to remedy some of the freshman foibles Truex has, but at this juncture, he’s struggling. His 40.46 percent adjusted pass efficiency for this initial stretch of races is one of the three worst efficiencies in the series, his closing (a position retention difference of minus-0.7 percent) is a negative against cars deep in the field and his average finish (35.8) stands out as one of Cup’s three poorest.

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 Actions Sports, Inc.