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 dog days of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season are almost over. This weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway spells the end of the sport’s horsepower-hungry summer malaise. Soon, a trio of exciting nighttime races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond will serve as a three-week hype-builder before NASCAR’s playoffs commence.
For two Cup Series rookies, it’s time to find another gear (metaphorically speaking). For others, like BK Racing’s Cole Whitt, who sat down with Athlon Sports last week for an exclusive interview, getting the best results in the remaining races is the primary goal.
After a three-week hiatus, the Rookie Report rankings return with a familiar face at the front of the pack:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
Third, seventh, 11th and fourth are the results for Larson in his last four Cup Series starts and the worst of those came after he won his second pole of the 2014 season. He isn’t quite leading laps — he paced the field just 19 times across those four races — but he’s crowding the front of the field at the finish, netting results far better than his average running position in each of those races. It seems as if Larson and this young team, led by second-year crew chief Chris Heroy, is beginning to hit its stride; however, they’re hitting a snag that befalls many a race team. Larson’s restarts are heavily dictating his outcomes. He gained six positions across seven restart attempts in the first seven rows at New Hampshire (where he finished third) and five across four in Indianapolis (he finished seventh), before losing seven positions across eight at Pocono, which was the 11th-place effort. It makes sense that success or failure in the sport’s most abundant position-changing window is reflected in the outcome, and it is important that Larson, who isn’t all that shabby during these windows, doesn’t boot an entire race because of consistently failing to retain his position.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
While taking in a slow-mo viewing of the Pocono race from two weeks ago, Dillon’s No. 3 car was an omnipresent loser on three late-race restarts within the first seven rows, dropping a total of seven positions. It’s something he needs to improve upon, sure, but before deep analysis is placed on his poor restart habits there is a more basic notion to point out: He is now restarting late in races, consistently, from the first seven rows. Earlier this year, this kind of money position eluded him. In his four most recent outings, he finished 14th, 10th, 15th and 16th, occasionally running higher prior to race-deciding restarts. Add in the fifth-place finish at Daytona in July and it’s easily the best five-race stretch of the season for the rookie. He hasn’t finished worse than 17th since his last visit to Michigan and if this team, one that finished third in points with Kevin Harvick driving last season, wants to crack this year’s Chase, a replication of his 30th-place finish in his last trip to the Irish Hills won’t fly.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 4)
In the last two weeks, Allgaier has earned finishes of 16th at Pocono and 17th at Watkins Glen. The latter, if you’ve paid attention to his career, shouldn’t come as a surprise. A fairly versatile driver with an eclectic background, Allgaier won an ARCA Series road course race in Millville, N.J., in 2008 and scored a NASCAR Nationwide Series victory on the famed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012. The stout finish for a team that has struggled to maintain track position harkens one back to Allgaier’s take, in my Q&A with him in April, on why former dirt drivers become standout road course racers:
“I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, in dirt you learn car control that you just don’t find developing on asphalt. The other thing is that in dirt racing you’re constantly searching for a line that allows you to go faster. It’s entering fast, slowing down in the middle and accelerating off the corner or carrying speed through the center; whatever the track calls for, you do it. On asphalt, a lot of times especially in oval racing, you’re going to want to carry center corner speed. That’s the goal, to carry center corner speed. On a road course, that’s not always the key. I feel like dirt racers tend to search around a lot more and maybe that’s why it clicks easier.”
4. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 3)
This weekend’s race at Michigan provides a welcome sight for Annett, who has scored six finishes of 22nd or better in the last 13 races, five of them coming on tracks two miles or more in length. Granted a driver like Greg Biffle has made a career from excelling at one track type, Annett’s inconsistency in finishing is the wrinkle in his rookie season that needs to be ironed; his 6.8 finish deviation is the second-worst among rookies. In the last nine races specifically, his “good” results (a 20.4-place average) have differed from his “bad” results (30.1) by a whopping 10 positions.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 5)
When Whitt told me that his goal for the remainder of the season is “to get every position possible and bring the best car to every race,” he surely didn’t have a Jimmie Johnson-esque ride into the Watkins Glen tire barriers in mind. The cringe-worthy accident left him with a dead-last finish after an uplifting qualifying effort (18th) provided some optimism. Prior to the freak accident at The Glen, he finished 21st at Pocono, an improvement of nine positions over his first visit’s result.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6)
Bowman finished 13th in a nutty July Daytona race, but in the four races that followed, outcomes weren’t as great. Finishes of 31st, 40th and 31st were the results at New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono, respectively, after he amassed a 40.48 percent adjusted pass efficiency and a minus-8.64 percent surplus passing value during that span. It’s a 180-degree turnaround in the wrong direction from the improvement he made in passing from the first quarter of the season to the second quarter.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7)
Truex and team finally cracked the top half of the field for a finish at Pocono — a 20th-place result — after weeks of steady, albeit practically invisible, improvement in the driver’s passing efficiency. There is still something this young team has yet to accomplish: A lead-lap finish. A two-mile track like the one he’ll see this weekend in Michigan provides a swell opportunity to finish within a lap of the leaders.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.