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.
The 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is underway. While pressure to earn points and wins aren’t nearly the concern for rookies as they were during the regular season, there are still eight races on the schedule that can be utilized to enhance strengths and eradicate weaknesses.
Here is the latest Rookie Report ranking, prior to this Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous: 1)
“It’s a damn shame we aren’t in the Chase,” said Larson over the radio to his crew following his second-place finish at New Hampshire, his second consecutive finish inside the top three in the last two races, concurring with the Chase’s first two events.
Though it is a shame, Larson had 26 races to accomplish the task of qualifying into the Chase. He didn’t, and it wasn’t due to one specific poor outing. The job didn’t get done when it mattered during the 26-race regular season, but that shouldn’t stop him from playing the role of potential spoiler in the remaining eight events.
The rest of the 2014 schedule includes four tracks — Texas, Kansas, Talladega and Dover — wherein he earned top-12 finishes earlier this season. It also includes Homestead, at which he has competed three times, once apiece in each of NASCAR’s three premier divisions, and led in each. No, return trips don’t make for automatic improvement; however, with Larson quick assimilation is the norm. He just might out-point some of the most notable Chasers going forward.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
With negative surplus passing values in each of his last seven races, a problem that has increased as the season progressed, Dillon just isn’t capitalizing on the track position he’s been given. A part of the problem is retention ability on double-file restarts. During this span, he lost 10 positions across five restart attempts within the first seven rows at Pocono and 14 across two at Michigan. The non-preferred groove, as it does with most drivers, has his number. He has retained his restart position just 27 percent of the time this season from that groove.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
While it’s true that Allgaier and crew chief Steve Addington lost four red zone positions en route to their 20th-place finish at New Hampshire, the closing tide has been turning for a team that struggled closing out races for the majority of the season. New Hampshire was the first race since Pocono that the No. 51 team lost positions during the final 10 percent of a race, good for an 83.33 percent base retention in races they completed, which stands 18 percent better than the team’s season-long mark of 65.22.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 4)
Whitt’s involvement in a multi-car crash on lap 181 at New Hampshire and subsequent 38th-place finish broke a streak of four straight 30th-place finishes, making the last five races his worst stretch of the entire season. If the No. 26 team can weather this storm, there are some beams of light on the horizon. In those five races dating back to Bristol, the always-scrappy Whitt averaged a surplus passing value 4.53 percent better than the expected efficiency from a driver with his average running position.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 5)
Not mentioned in last week’s look at passing splits was the improvement made by Annett in his adjusted pass efficiency in the season’s third quarter. In fact, he was one of two drivers — Allgaier was the other — to jump from an efficiency in the red to one in the black, shooting from 49.04 percent to 51.43 percent (anything over 50 percent signifies a driver passing more than he or she is passed). If the 12 positions crew chief Bono Manion cost him during green-flag pit cycles in the span of races from Kentucky through Chicagoland was just a balanced zero, the No. 7 team could have capitalized on its driver’s steady track position gains.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
The second half of this season hasn’t been kind to Bowman. It’d make sense that the under-budget BK Racing team can’t afford the kind of Toyota Gen-6 spec updates that Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing can make to its machines, so a tapering off in speed and everything else that comes with that makes sense. Bowman’s passing has taken a tremendous blow dating back to the Kentucky race. In the last 10 races (omitting Watkins Glen), Bowman earned negative surplus passing values in nine of them, averaging an efficiency 5.77 percent below what is expected from a driver in his average running position. That’s the worst mark of any series regular during that span.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
It would appear that all the improving that Truex did — especially to his passing ability — were victories of the Pyrrhic variety, because BK Racing elected to bench him at New Hampshire, a track Truex was victorious at in K&N East competition in 2010, in favor of Travis Kvapil, a known never-was with an unsavory rap sheet. While it’s true that Truex has failed to light the world on fire, not all rookies adapt to higher competition levels like Kyle Larson did. A commitment of time should come with every decision to sign a rookie driver, and owners Ron Devine and Wayne Press and team GM Rick Carpenter failed to provide it. It would seem they’re also in the process of egregiously botching the hiring of his replacement.
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.