Taking stock of the Cup Series' Rookie of the Year contenders
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 discusses whether the top rookies in this year’s class have out-raced their reputations.
If you watched the three-day-long NFL Draft two weeks ago, you likely would have heard descriptions of the college players making the leap to the professional level. For three or four years, these players created an identity for themselves. “The book on this guy,” as described by ESPN’s Mel Kiper or NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, consisted of traits accumulated from statistics or anecdotes from people close to the player.
“The book on a guy” isn’t complete logic. It’s good for evaluation purposes — the makeup of a prospect is great intel — but it’s all subject to change. The identities young people develop can alter when the stakes rise, for better or worse. And sometimes it stays the same. “The book” is an inexact science — it is an incomplete book, after all — that also exists for budding NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prospects.
A few of the top Cup Series rookies in this year’s class had chapters of their book written prior to their full-time entrance into American racing’s grandest stage. Have their books altered, or stayed the course?
Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing
Larson’s book: In his formative years in Dirt Sprint Cars and related USAC-sanctioned divisions, Larson gobbled up wins like he was Pac Man. He assimilated quickly to new rides within USAC’s most competitive series, Super Late Models (he won in his first race) and Stock Cars (he won the NASCAR K&N East championship in his rookie season). Through one year of NASCAR Nationwide Series racing he demonstrated an affinity for tracks with a competitive high groove and an efficient passing acumen. Although exciting to watch, he was not a prototypical “race dominator.”
What’s stayed the same? It’s safe to say his quick assimilation tendency remains intact. After ranking first in pass efficiency among Nationwide Series regulars in 2013 (53.42 percent), his penchant for passing efficiency has translated to Sundays. He currently ranks fifth in the Cup Series in adjusted pass efficiency with — get this — a 53.42 percent efficiency through the first 12 races. He also is scoring high finishes without leading many laps. He’s led zero this year in Cup and only 114 this year in Nationwide, which ranks just sixth in a division thin of talent (he ranked sixth in laps led in his title-winning K&N East season). His three best Cup Series finishes this year were at Fontana, Texas and Darlington, three tracks that offered a competitive high groove.
What’s changed? Not much. He is who we thought he was, which is a driver chock full of talent that’s likely to fulfill his potential.
Austin Dillon, No. 3 Richard Childress Racing
Dillon’s book: His bread and butter in four full seasons across the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series was intermediate tracks, on which he scored three of his five Truck Series race wins and both of his Nationwide Series race wins. A relatively poor passer, Dillon’s strength was being consistent on a race-to-race basis in retaining track position his team provided for him.
What’s stayed the same? Dillon got passed more than he passed last year in the Nationwide Series, amassing a 48.33 percent efficiency. That hasn’t changed thus far in Cup this season, where he holds a 49.27 percent adjusted efficiency that is, on average, 1.27 percent below his average running position’s expected value. Luckily, he is still adept at taking track position and running with it — crew chief Gil Martin has maintained Dillon’s position through green-flag pit cycles 60 percent of the time and trotted out strong closing setups that have helped award the driver an average gain of 2.5 positions in the final 10 percent of races.
What’s changed? His reputation for favoring intermediate tracks has dissipated, evident by his results. In the four races on 1.5-mile tracks, his average finish is 18th. His average finish on all other track types is 15.4. It seems as if this pony has more than one trick.
Justin Allgaier, No. 51 HScott Motorsports
Allgaier’s book: Slow to assimilate, it took Allgaier three full seasons of ARCA to become a regular winner, and eventually a champion, in the series. He was also slow to grow in the Nationwide Series, maturing from a replacement-level producer in 2008 with Team Penske to a winner and under-the-radar results-getter in his last two seasons with Turner Scott Motorsports. His aggressive entry into turns and defense of position proved somewhat successful for him in the passing game, but rubbed fellow drivers the wrong way. He shined on short tracks.
What’s stayed the same? After a brush-up with Danica Patrick at Phoenix this year, he discussed his rapport with other drivers with Athlon Sports. That aggression, regardless of perception, is translating to success in the passing game. He isn’t technically an efficient passer — his 49.92 percent efficiency indicates he is passed more than he passes — but that efficiency is 1.79 percent better than the expected output of his average running position, which stands at 25.458 following the Coca-Cola 600. His short(er) track success seems to have translated; his best four finishes came on tracks 1.366 miles or smaller (Bristol, Richmond, Martinsville and Darlington).
What’s changed? It’s entirely too early to call this since we don’t know what his future results are, but he is showing more life in his rookie Cup Series season than what was probably expected. A bad final restart killed a potential top-15 finish at Richmond (his stat line would be a lot prettier if he had just sealed the deal), and his passing has been one of his best positives of the year. Fans of Allgaier hope that his slow assimilation tendency continues — it’d mean this year’s performance is just the basement of what he is able to accomplish — but the driver needs a litany of good habits to point to in order to stay in a steady ride or get looks from more established organizations. That there is even a list is a small sign of change.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.