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 discusses the rookies in the news as they enter their first All-Star Race weekend.
Both the haves and the have-nots of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class are approaching this weekend’s All-Star festivities at Charlotte Motor Speedway looking to make history — two rookies, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman, have won the All-Star Race — but it is a “will-not” and his team that made headlines early this week.
Justin Allgaier’s HScott Motorsports team won’t be participating in Friday night’s Sprint Showdown, a companion event to the All-Star Race for non-winners that transfers the top two finishers to Saturday’s show. Instead, they’ll be taking a breather and focusing on the points-paying Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in two weeks and other upcoming events.
A Cup Series regular skipping any race nowadays is heresy to some, but the decision to sit on the sidelines amounts to a savvy one, at least financially.
Any weekend a Cup car is placed in the hauler and headed to the racetrack — and actually planning to compete, not start and park — a team is expected to burn anywhere from $200,000 to $225,000 in a three-day span. If that price range stands true for Friday’s Sprint Showdown and Allgaier was to win the race, which offers a winner’s purse of $42,155 (per the NASCAR entry blank), the team would still be in the hole by over $150,000 … and have to exert more wear, tear and currency the following night in the All-Star Race. Sometimes the dollars and cents in this sport lack sense, and in this instance logic suggests that sitting out isn’t a bad thing. That $150,000 saved could be better allocated for a small team located outside the Charlotte race hub (in Spartanburg, S.C.) that doesn’t have a full season’s worth of sponsorship.
At some point this weekend, FOX’s Larry McReynolds will explain to you that some race teams are merely using the All-Star Race weekend as a test session for the next week’s 600-mile marathon. While that could technically be true, be aware of the exorbitant cost for which this “test session” calls.
If, hypothetically, a team rented out Charlotte Motor Speedway (not allowed per NASCAR rules, but track specs could be mimicked elsewhere) for a day and logged laps to accumulate data via telemetry (something teams aren’t allowed to do during a race), it would round out to about a $35 to $40 thousand cost. Tires for this weekend’s practice sessions and races alone will cost teams somewhere around $25,000 (teams can use tires already in their inventory for a test session). So if a team is, in fact, utilizing the All-Star Race weekend as a glorified test session, then it’s the Rolex of test sessions and certainly not a cost-effective way of obtaining information.
Owner Harry Scott and his team’s analysis of the cost benefit surrounding All-Star Race weekend participation showed that they’d be better suited to spend that money on more prudent events. It's a sign of financial intelligence, not competitive weakness, that they’re electing to channel their focus elsewhere.
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The Sprint Showdown pits the entire rookie crop, sans Allgaier, against drivers that failed to win a race in either 2013 or 2014. Clint Bowyer, a Chase participant each of the last two years whose most recent win came at Charlotte in the 2012 fall race, is the coyote roaming a house of hens. Two rookies — Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon — could potentially play the role of his spoiler.
Chip Ganassi Racing, which fields Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet SS, is a veteran of the Showdown — though, that’s probably not a designation they’re thrilled to have — having captured two victories in races dating back to 2004, including the 2013 race with Jamie McMurray. McMurray also finished third in the event in 2012, while Larson’s predecessor, Juan Pablo Montoya, finished fifth.
When Larson and team took part in the December rules package test at Charlotte, he was a frequent leader in winner in the simulated races. Though practice performance doesn’t necessarily translate to game success, his two top-5 finishes this season came on big tracks (Fontana, Texas) that offered a high groove for the rim-riding aficionado.
Dillon, whose No. 3 makes its first All-Star Race weekend appearance since Dale Earnhardt sported a pink and yellow Peter Max-designed paint scheme in 2000, has seen a mixed fare of results at intermediate tracks this season. However, it stood out at 1.5-mile tracks in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (winning twice at Kentucky) and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (wins at Las Vegas and Chicagoland).
Since 2008, two rookies have transferred from the Showdown to the All-Star Race. Sam Hornish drove a Team Penske car to a second-place finish in the ’08 event. Ricky Stenhouse, who will again be competing in the Showdown on Friday, finished second in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Six rookies, including the aforementioned sleepers, will look to emulate the feats of Hornish and Stenhouse this weekend.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.