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 four races remaining in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, our ongoing ranking of this year’s rookies becomes clearer:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Larson does a lot of things well, but his restarts have been polarizing this entire season, especially in specific spurts. In the six Chase races — and mind you, his 6.0-place average finish during that span is the second-best in the series, trailing only Joey Logano’s 4.2 — his veteran-like restarting ability from the preferred groove has been on full display. Across 19 restarts from the more desired of the two grooves within the first seven rows, he retained his position 18 times (a 94.7 percent retention clip) and gained 31 spots. Conversely, his results from the non-preferred groove couldn’t conceivably have been much worse. Across an equal 19 attempts, he kept his spot just seven times (a 36.8 percent retention rate) and lost a total of 27 positions. While it’s clear that Larson is a world-beater once he finds a drivable groove, this six-race snapshot indicates an area of improvement — situations in which he doesn’t get his lane of choice — for the driver most likely to be named this season’s Rookie of the Year.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
If Larson’s restart tendencies seem in line with what’s expected — drivers restart better in the preferred groove than they do in the non-preferred — then Dillon’s own restart habits are out of whack, at least across the last six races. This snapshot shows us a driver who has been more efficient from the non-preferred groove as of late, out-retaining his preferred-groove attempts by almost 17 percent. Across 14 restarts from the non-preferred groove, he held his position seven times (50 percent), while his preferred-groove efforts netted just three restarts out of nine in which positions were retained (33.3 percent). This doesn’t reflect his yearlong restart efforts, though. For the season, those numbers are somewhat flipped — he holds a 53.9 percent retention rate from the preferred groove, while maintaining his restart position 39.4 percent of the time from the non-preferred.
3. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 4)
At Talladega, Whitt led the first lap of his Cup Series career and scored a 15th-place finish, displaying the kind of closing kick that he and crew chief Randy Cox have become known for in 2014. Their nine-position gain in the final 10 percent of Sunday’s race was just a drop in the bucket of their season-long closing efforts. Their 93.1 percent position retention in the red zone — the laps spanning a race’s 10 percent-to-go mark until its conclusion — is the best among all series regulars. Whitt and Cox are, through 32 races, the most reliable closers in Cup.
4. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Things were looking up for Allgaier and his HScott Motorsports team, fresh off of their best finish of the 2014 season — a 15th-place result at Charlotte — until qualifying at Talladega provided a hurdle not cleared for them and the team of 2013 Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse. Both failed to qualify, and the blame for that has been incorrectly deflected.
Consider this an aside to the Rookie Report rankings this week: The unique, one-time-only qualifying format last weekend at Talladega was improperly blamed for two series regulars missing the show. One legendary driver and a notable team owner criticized NASCAR for the confusion of the format; however, they did themselves no favors by revealing their cheated feelings to be an effect of never understanding the rules correctly in the first place.
Jeff Gordon, who qualified into the race via a provisional starting spot and led the epically slow qualifying draft that included Stenhouse and Allgaier, admitted via Twitter that he’d “never been so … confused trying to qualify for a race,” while Jack Roush, Stenhouse’s owner, told NASCAR.com that he “didn’t consider the fact that our position in points would leave us in jeopardy. That was a blind side on my part … It’s just unbelievable that we didn’t get on the racetrack in time to get a lap there.”
It’s true: A number of teams failed to comprehend what the condensed timeframe for qualifying meant, even though the memo NASCAR sent to competitors stating the rule was sent in September, weeks in advance of the race (that’s when the media types like myself also received a copy). Teams, including Gordon’s and Stenhouse’s, bizarrely waited until the clock ticked down before making an initial run instead of getting in as many laps as possible (and note that in final practice, all but one of 21 cars that took time recorded their fastest lap of the session after their second lap; more time on the track would seemingly produce more chances at an optimum lap for an impound event).
As for Roush’s overall ambivalence toward his team’s position in the point standings, let’s just chalk that up to actions unbefitting of a would-be Hall-of-Fame team owner. The top six teams in points — and only those six — being guaranteed starting spots was a rule put into place before this season began. It’s the second mishandling of race entrance in as many weeks for Roush, who didn’t procure points from a fellow Ford team (i.e. It could have borrowed the car number and corresponding points from Wood Brothers Racing or FAS Lane Racing) and, instead, watched Trevor Bayne fail to make the Charlotte race behind the wheel of its No. 6 entry.
For several competitors, failure to fully understand a new rule dictating competition was an embarrassment. For Allgaier, it cost him a race he could have used for his own continued assimilation into NASCAR’s most cutthroat division.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Annett is a graduate of the ARCA Series, where he claimed victories at Talladega in 2007 and Daytona in 2008. Those wins were easy to remember after his showing on Sunday, which was arguably his best of the season, though the accident during the first green-white-checker attempt derailed his chance of a finish worthy of the effort. It was the first race of his young Cup Series career in which he spent the majority of his completed laps (51 percent) running inside the top 15. He also somehow tallied the third-highest green-flag pass total (635) in a car that lacked the lane-to-lane maneuverability of machines built by Hendrick, Penske or JGR.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Bowman and BK Racing could’ve used a good run at Talladega; however, he was one of just 13 drivers to spend less than 10 percent of his laps inside the top 15, his best running position (ninth) was the third-worst among all 43 drivers and his collection in the 10-car accident on lap 104 ended his afternoon, saddling him with a 43rd-place (last place) finish. For all the randomness that restrictor plate races provide, the four point-paying races only sort of bounced Bowman’s way, his best outing being the attrition-filled July race at Daytona wherein he finished a season-best 13th. He averaged a 26.8-place finish on plate tracks this season, a 5.6-position improvement over his season-long 32.4-place average.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.