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NASCAR Rookie Report: Learning the art of passing in the 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 driver in this year’s rookie class.

With the haves and have-nots of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series firmly delineated, the act of passing for position has shifted from “option” to “skill,” a proposition that the rookies of the division are finding difficult.

Measuring passing in a NASCAR race comes with a side dish of caveats. One would have to weed out all of the positions gained and lost during green-flag pit cycles and omit any losses due to pass-thru penalties – pit road speeding penalties are becoming as regular as a ticket for speeding on your local highway – that skew the NASCAR-issued passing numbers. The result is adjusted pass efficiency, which measures the amount of passes compared to pass encounters with all the fluff extracted.

To sweeten the pot, surplus passing value – finding the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency versus the expected efficiency from a car in a similar average running position – tells us how drivers fare in the passing game relative to the cars around them.

Both adjusted pass efficiency and surplus passing value play significant roles in this week’s ranking.

1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1) His deviation in clean lap times at Phoenix was wildly inconsistent compared to other drivers and his 48.46 percent average adjusted pass efficiency across Phoenix and Las Vegas wasn’t stellar, but Larson is still holding steady as the top rookie thanks to his rally from a pit road speeding penalty in Vegas (that cost him 18 positions) that culminated in a 19th-place result. The burst back into the top half of the field was highlighted by a 50.71 percent adjusted pass efficiency – a surplus value of plus-1.23 percent – that netted him 71 spots over the course of the 400-mile race. He heads into Bristol this weekend where he finished a close second last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 3) Dillon’s 16.3-place average finish is tops among Cup Series rookies, but average finish is a full-on team stat. Independent of his race team, the reigning Nationwide Series champion is slowly making progress. In his last two races, his passing – something that was a struggle in his 11 Cup Series races last year (46.24 percent) – was subpar compared to his high average running positions. He averaged a minus-4.28 percent surplus passing value between Phoenix and Las Vegas. The good news is that Dillon and team are qualifying well, helping to increase their chance at high finishes – his 9.7-place average starting spot is the second best in the entire series.

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3. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 4) Whitt has crew chief Randy Cox to thank for jumping him from 31st to 26th on the final green-flag pit cycle during the Phoenix race, helping him score a 27th-place finish that hovered well above his 32.7-place running position for the afternoon. His good showings with upstart Swan Racing continued at Las Vegas when he notched the race’s second-best passing value (a plus-9.48 percent mark, trailing only Kevin Harvick’s plus-12.23 percent). Unfortunately, all Whitt could muster was a 36th-place finish, six laps off of the lead.

4. Parker Kligerman, No. 30(previous: 2) Kligerman’s street cred earned him a second-place ranking in this column two weeks ago, but a malady of issues kept him performing at that caliber. He blew an engine at Phoenix with 86 laps left in the event. At Las Vegas, he finished 27 laps down, suffering through ignition troubles during the race after swapping out the motor following Saturday’s practice session. Because of this, he was a high-speed traffic cone, getting passed in over 60 percent of his pass encounters. Better days are undoubtedly ahead, but to win the game, he must first play in it. Kligerman has been riding the pine, so to speak, and thus takes a tumble in the ranking.

5. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 6) With all due respect to Larson, the most aggressive rookie thus far this season is Allgaier, who has been borderline reckless the last two weeks. He crashed during knockout qualifying in Phoenix and again during the race, which sparked a venom-fueled microphone rant from Danica Patrick. In Las Vegas he avoided wrecking, but, as noted by Slugger Labbe, crew chief for Paul Menard, he and Marcos Ambrose were “trying to wreck.” The heightened level of aggression does have perks, though. He is averaging a plus-4.78 percent surplus passing value and is the only rookie with an adjusted efficiency of over 50 percent, which means he is passing more than he is being passed.

6. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 7) Annett might be the most pleasant early surprise of this year’s rookie crop. In his past two races, he averaged running positions of 34.8 and 29.6, but don't misconstrue that as “riding around in the back.” Based on an average passing surplus of plus-10.2 percent, tops among rookies, we know that Annett is passing adeptly relative to the cars around him (in fact, his plus-16.7 percent surplus at Phoenix was the best passing value of the entire race). Had he not run out of gas in the closing laps of Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, his 29th-place finish could have been around three or four spots better.

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7. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 5) After being one of two rookies that finished the Daytona 500 (Dillon was the other), Bowman scored finishes of 41st and 37th at Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively. The former was due to a brake issue about three quarters into the race that abbreviated his day. In Vegas, his 44.2 percent adjusted pass efficiency, which came in under his 34.6-place position’s value, wasn’t enough to navigate through traffic. The position jumping effort of crew chief Dave Winston, who earned Bowman two positions during the race’s third and final green-flag pit cycle, also didn’t have a profound effect on the finish.

8. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 8) A pair of 35th-place finishes are on the table after Truex failed to qualify for the Daytona 500. Outside of a surplus passing effort in Las Vegas – his 48.33 adjusted pass efficiency was 3.66 percent better than the expected value of his 36.5-place average running position – it’s been a rough go for the two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion. His team’s end-of-race efforts have netted a loss of one whole position over the last two weeks.

David Smith is the founder ofMotorsports Analytics LLCand the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at@DavidSmithMA.