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 ponders how each rookie’s growth pattern might play out in future Cup Series seasons.
It takes very little effort to point at Kyle Larson, per production, the top rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and say that he’s going to blossom into a star. Something so obvious is a good thing, especially if it is the exception to the rule, which Larson is.
Larson is a quick learner, evident by a win in his first ever Late Model start, a championship in his first ever stock car season (NASCAR K&N Pro Series East) and leading series regulars in production and pass efficiency in his rookie NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign. But his history of swift assimilation isn’t the industry norm.
Rookies at the sport’s premier level tend to struggle with producing results in their given equipment. From 2006 through 2013, there were 27 rookies in the Cup Series. Just one — Denny Hamlin — scored a first-year Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) higher than 1.000, a mark signifying an ability to win on any particular race weekend, per MotorsportsAnalytics.com. If this year’s seven full-time rookies, which includes Larson’s 2.092 PEER through 19 races, are added to that total then just two out of the last 34 rookies (under six percent) were serviceable producers in their maiden Cup Series seasons.
Among that crop of rookies were Clint Bowyer (0.819 PEER), Brad Keselowski (0.653), Joey Logano (0.569) and Paul Menard (minus-0.750), all of which have cracked the 1.000 mark and are vying for Chase contention for established teams in 2014. The lesson here? Slow assimilation to the Cup Series isn’t necessarily a career-killing omen. That’s why any panic over the seemingly slow development of current rookies Austin Dillon, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex and 2013 Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse is a bit premature. If their careers to this point are any indication, we shouldn’t have expected much from them initially in the first place.
In analyzing a driver’s ascent up the sport’s ladder, patterns stick out. Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide Series champion, is a polarizing subject among industry influencers. Some covet his natural, aggressive ability that they believe is being muzzled by the traditionally conservative Roush Fenway Racing camp. Others feel he has underachieved dramatically in his first two seasons. I haven’t come across much of a gray area when it comes to opinions on Stenhouse, but it’s alarmingly clear that initial expectations were out of whack from the get-go. At least that’s what his pattern indicates.
Stenhouse spent three full years in the Nationwide Series — two longer than Hamlin and Larson and what will ultimately be one year longer than current series riser Chase Elliott — driving for one team and the year-to-year improvement was visible on the track and on paper. His average finish moved from 19.4 in 2010 to 8.8 in 2011 and, finally, to 7.3 in 2012. That corresponded with increases in win totals (zero to two to six) and PEER (minus-0.422 to 2.529 to 3.485). How did a driver who, at one point, produced worse weighted results than the likes of Kevin Lepage, Derrike Cope and Eric McClure become a world-beater? He became demonstrably better at passing.
In 2010, with plate tracks and road course races omitted (tracks ripe for outliers), he earned a pass efficiency of 48.99 percent; anything below 50 warrants a negative pass differential and in his case, it was minus-40 for the normal oval races. His efficiency improved to a 52.71 percent in 2011 (for a pass differential of plus-100) and leapt even higher in 2012 to 54.88 percent (plus-153). Though Stenhouse’s 46.88 percent efficiency in his rookie Cup Series season didn’t pave the way for anything good, it wasn’t entirely a cause for alarm if his previous growth pattern was considered. His adjusted pass efficiency this season sits at 49.9 percent — a three percent increase — that echoes the pattern he demonstrated at the Nationwide level. Though it hasn’t translated to an elevated average finish or PEER, he is maturing into a better Cup Series driver.
If this year’s current rookie crop plays true to their patterns, here are a few reasonable things to expect:
Improvement from Justin Allgaier
Across two organizations, Allgaier’s PEER climbed from 0.286 and 1.114 with Team Penske to 1.882, 2.700 and 2.053 with Turner Scott Motorsports, but his performance strides can be best viewed in his average finish bookends; in his rookie year for Penske, he averaged a 16.5-place result, while in his fifth and final Nationwide season, in a Turner car, he was five positions higher in the running order, with an 11.2-place average. On a related note, it took him the equivalent of three full seasons to become a multi-race winner in ARCA.
Steadiness from Cole Whitt
Whitt’s only multi-season experience in one division came in Nationwide. He averaged a 14th-place finish in 2012 for JR Motorsports and was released from the ride in favor of Regan Smith in 2013 (interestingly enough, Brad Keselowski averaged a 17.9-place finish in his initial half-year effort for JRM and was retained for the ensuing season). Landing a limited role with Mark Smith’s Tri-Star Motorsports faction, Whitt only had to swallow a drop of 1.7 positions per race across 15 attempts. His stats might not scream “star quality,” but as we saw with Martin Truex last year, Cup teams value steady hands in a rapidly evolving sport.
Immediate regression from Austin Dillon
You’d think the year in which he won a Nationwide Series championship without winning a single race would be chock full of statistical depth, but it wasn’t. His 2012 season, in which he won twice and amassed a PEER of 2.879, had more top-10 finishes (27) than his winless title-winning campaign (22). Things aren’t exactly awful for him in Cup, though. His team is in Chase contention despite his 0.737 PEER that ranks second among rookies and he and crew chief Gil Martin have been shrewd position-grabbers in the close of races. Eventually his poor passing — never a strong suit in the lower divisions — could bite him.
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Improvement from Michael Annett
Prior to an injury-marred 2013 season in Nationwide, Annett chipped off nine positions from his 20.5-place rookie season average finish, enjoying an 11.2-place average result in 2012 (all of his top-5 finishes in Nationwide came in Years 4 and 5). He’s already making in-season improvements to his passing, thanks to a tidy summer swoon.
Improvement from Ryan Truex
Like Annett, Truex has enjoyed an increased passing efficiency that hasn’t yet resulted in on-track results. That’s fine. Truex went from sub-serviceable producer in the Nationwide Series in 2011 (0.412 PEER, finished in the top 10 just 29 percent of the time) to a driver who nearly won at Dover in 2012 and finished his partial season with an elevated production rating (1.227 with a 36 percent top-10 finish rate).
Alex Bowman is the wild card
Bowman has never, at any point in his career, competed in the same series for consecutive seasons, providing virtually no pattern from which to pull. It’s what made the Cup Series’ youngest driver an inherent risk for BK Racing in the first place, but it’s better to bite the bullet on an unknown commodity than recycle a veteran who is a well-documented underachiever.
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.