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 challenges the theory that all rookies get better in a second visit to a racetrack.
This weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway presents a first for this year’s rookie crop: It is the first track — and I’m omitting Daytona because of the more random nature of restrictor plate racing — that the rookies and their respective teams are hitting for a second time this season. If you’ve watched NASCAR coverage at any point during your life, then it’s likely that you have heard about the wondrous advantages of a young driver seeing a track for a second time. It hangs in the air like a promise to be fulfilled; once these guys start returning to tracks for a second time, everything will fall into place.
Could there be a mental advantage associated with returning to a track with a race under the belt? Sure, but when dealing in reality, the notion of just wait until they come back is a silver lining without substance. Notable rookie seasons of years past indicate that the return trip doesn’t ensure better results.
The currently-en-vogue Jeff Gordon was a 21-year-old kid with a criminally bad mustache when he averaged a 16.1-place result, which included five top-10 finishes, in the 11 races at tracks that had repeat visits in the 1993 season. In the 11 races that served as “second looks,” his top-10 total dropped to two and he tacked on four positions to his average, a 20.5, across the span.
Jimmie Johnson scored victories in his first visits to Fontana (a track without a repeat visit in 2002) and Dover (he won his second race there as well, setting up what’s now a well-known love affair between the driver and the concrete mile track). He averaged a 13.6-place finish in the first visits, and dropped by a position to 14.5 in the return trips.
The results don’t always deteriorate, though. Tony Stewart’s averages in 1999, 10.2 and 10.5, were relatively the same. Juan Pablo Montoya’s in 2010 were identical 23.9 averages in separate 12-race spans across the same tracks. And there have been improvements. Denny Hamlin increased his average by six positions in 2006, from 14.4 to 8.4, in his return visits, while Joey Logano chipped 2.6 positions off of his average in 2009.
The rookie-year numbers (at right) for this select group of future stars indicates that results in return trips to racetracks are mixed.
Now, the average finish number is far from the be-all, end-all — it might not properly tell the story of an entire race — but to be in the highest possible position at the conclusion of the final lap is the overall goal of auto racing. In the case of the return visits during a rookie season, focus more on what the numbers are indicating rather than what the numbers are: The aura of the second visit is over exaggerated and every driver and team develops differently.
You can have proper expectations on the future growth of a young driver by peering into their past while climbing up NASCAR’s treacherous development ladder. Some drivers are fast assimilators — Stewart was, which might be why his first-year average finish splits were similar and Gordon was, which made his initial visits to Cup tracks so memorable — while others take time to grow into their driving identity.
Kyle Larson’s history as a quick learner — it’s one of the reasons I’ve often compared him to a young Stewart or Gordon — means that we probably shouldn’t anticipate a dramatic efflorescence during his second visits. This was clear last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series when his average finish at the nine non-plate tracks that hosted two races each dropped from 10.3 in his first visits to 16.1 in his second trips.
Other drivers might be limited by equipment. Outside of Larson and Austin Dillon, the five remaining rookies — Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex — face the harsh financial realities of the sport in the second half of this season. Much-needed aerodynamic updates might be tough for the smaller teams to acquire, which could mean the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots has the potential to widen as the year winds down. Those same teams, at some point, will also abandon their starry-eyed Chase dreams and turn their attention to the 2015 season. This makes marked improvement during a second visit in the same season illogical in most cases.
The act of improving takes on many forms and regression might not always be what it seems. Don’t raise expectations based on a folksy tall tale. Guaranteed improvement the second time around at one facility, at least from a basic results standpoint, is a fallacy in NASCAR.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.