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.
With two races remaining in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, two rookies in this year’s crop have realistic, albeit uneasy, chances of making the Chase. Kyle Larson sits 26 points behind bubble driver Greg Biffle, while Austin Dillon is a more daunting 40 points behind. They head to an intermediate track this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, which has quietly hosted a pair of entertaining events the past two years.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
A crash disrupted Larson’s Michigan outing and a qualifying accident halted what was evolving into a grand weekend on the high banks of Bristol. That’s a shame, because now the rookie will have to press a bit more in the next two weeks in order to become the first rookie since Denny Hamlin to clinch a Chase spot. Atlanta, a quad-oval track that offers a competitive high groove under nighttime skies seems up Larson’s ally, especially considering he is a) as efficient of a passer at fast intermediate tracks (52.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency) as he is at all normal tracks (a season-long 52.81 percent) and b) he is a more efficient passer at night (54.84 percent) than he is in the day (51.87 percent).
Twenty-six points is not an easy discrepancy to make up in two weeks, but he has proved, this season especially, that he’s capable of pulling off the improbable. A great run at Atlanta could conceivably ignite a playoff-making run.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
The bad news is that Dillon was a non-factor at Bristol, which didn’t help his long-shot Chase chance. The good news is that Dillon embarks on a fast intermediate track this weekend, a track type at which he hasn’t finished in the bottom half of a field all season. Coupled with his recent surge, mentioned in this space two weeks ago, the No. 3 team likely approaches the Peach State this weekend with a big appetite. Crew chief Gil Martin, who jumped Dillon a net total of 19 positions through green-flag pit cycles the last four races, should prepare to employ the strategy that proved successful because Dillon isn’t an above-passer passer on intermediate tracks, sporting a 49.04 percent pass efficiency this year in events at similar facilities.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
Omit the crash and corresponding 42nd-place finish at Michigan and Allgaier finished 16th, 17th and 19th in his last three clean races. It’s a move in the right direction for the rookie who, despite some above-value passing, suffered through rough outings even when displaying flashes near the front of the field. This weekend’s race at Atlanta could serve as a true test of whether Allgaier has improved. Why? Because Allgaier is plus passer everywhere but at fast intermediate tracks like Atlanta. In races at similar facilities — Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte — he holds a negative adjusted pass differential (minus-23).
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 5)
Outside of the enigmatic Greg Biffle, Whitt might be the most difficult driver to evaluate in all of the Cup Series. Despite finishing 30th at Bristol, his passing during the event was admirable; his plus-7.69 percent surplus passing value ranked sixth in the race among all 43 drivers. That performance broke up a three-race skid of below-par passing, though he scored finishes of 21st at Pocono and 25th at Michigan during that time frame. Somehow, there seems to be a silver lining in every Cole Whitt performance.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 4)
Annett’s last two outings were brutal and both ended prematurely, resulting in finishes of 40th at Michigan, due to the effects of an early crash kick-started by Danica Patrick, and 38th at Bristol. Amazingly, his passing efforts, after improving from the first quarter of the season to the second, have continued to blossom; in all circle track races dating back to the second New Hampshire race, he is an above-par passer, amassing an efficiency of 50.88 percent.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6)
Speed can cure a lot of what ails a race a team and Bowman’s No. 23 at horsepower-hungry Michigan was a terrific example of this. Bowman passed below value (48.53 percent efficiency, 2.67 percent below his average running position’s expected efficiency) and crew chief Dave Winston gave up seven positions across two green-flag pit cycles. But Bowman’s car ranked 27th in average green-flag speed for the race, a whole 10 spots higher than his season-long rank, and he capitalized on it by finishing 26th despite the other poor peripheral numbers.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7)
Truex, 0.105 points above replacement-level in MotorsportsAnalytics.com’s most recent Production in Equal Equipment Ratings, took a massive hit — literally — in a practice crash at Michigan. He suffered a concussion and sat out the race two weeks ago, replaced by the immortal J.J. Yeley. Truex returned to the BK Racing seat at Bristol, but was registered with a 37th-place finish after blowing an engine.
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.