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 mid-season malaise that hits NASCAR every calendar year can cause fans to drift away. Sure, the TNT broadcasts sound as if the commentators are in a soundproof chamber, where engine noise is diluted and the accent-neutral voices might as well be white noise, but there are also distractions. Outside of other TV-friendly sports — the World Cup has been a lightning rod of drama in its first week — there are reasons to wander off, away from the television. The outdoors beckon as summertime prepares to go full swing and it’s easy to sleep on the goings-on in NASCAR.
For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams, this time of year is anything but a snooze fest. It’s the point in the season in which all is revealed. Three tracks — Pocono, Michigan and Indianapolis — comprise five events on the summer schedule. All of them are over two miles long with seemingly endless straightaways that cater to high-horsepower motors that roar while distancing themselves from lesser competitors.
The middle of the season is when horsepower matters most. It’s when equipment strength is on full display and for some drivers it provides a harsh realization that all may not be well.
“The Hendrick cars are probably the best where it takes power to run,” said Brad Keselowski, whose Team Penske cars appear just a smidge off the pace of the Hendrick-powered contingent.
“We all have got a little bit of work to do because it’s pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else. Usually that’s not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they’re probably a full season ahead of everyone.”
This is the first time this year’s rookie class is experiencing the power-needy mid-season gauntlet. Two drivers — Kyle Larson and Justin Allgaier — have access to Hendrick motors, but don’t have Hendrick motor tuners putting their final touches on the power plants during race weekend. Some rookies are piloting cars with malnourished motors.
This week’s rankings focused on how well the rookies navigated Pocono and Michigan and reacted to their given supply of horsepower.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
Hendrick engines with Chip Ganassi Racing personnel to oversee them at tracks with multiple wide grooves? Being Kyle Larson is a pretty sweet gig. Larson has utilized his power plant — the best any rookie currently possesses — to explore various lines at Pocono, where he won the ARCA Series race prior to finishing fifth in the Cup race, and Michigan, where he finished eighth after securing the day’s highest adjusted pass efficiency, a 58.71 percent mark. He ranks third in the series this year in adjusted pass efficiency (53.22 percent).
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
Speed wasn’t an issue for Dillon at Michigan — his average running position for the day (13.15) was better than Larson’s — but his naiveté showed on restarts, losing eight positions across four attempts inside the first seven rows. To boot, driver and team miscalculated a possible flat tire during the final pit cycle, pitting three times and dropping a total of 18 spots. The 30th-place finish was Dillon’s worst of the season and one that put a dent in their previously pristine closing record.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
Hendrick horsepower? Yes. Hendrick personnel? Far from it. The upstart HScott Motorsports team overachieved Sunday in Michigan as Allgaier averaged a 13.6-place run spot while passing above that spot’s expected efficiency (51.32 percent for a surplus of plus-0.43 percent). That Allgaier could run, with success, against more established drivers was a promising sign, but there is still much for this team to learn about position maintenance while high in the running order. The final pit cycle dropped him from 15th to 16th, where he finished, one of three spots crew chief Steve Addington lost for him during the race.
4. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 4)
Finishes of 20th and 21st proved to be quality outings for Annett and the ragtag Tommy Baldwin team. They’re utilizing Earnhardt-Childress racing motors without the know-how of a brand-name organization. Steady progress by the driver (he averaged a surplus passing value of plus-0.56 percent over the last two races) helped balance the team’s polarizing pit reputation (they lost seven positions during green-flag cycles at Pocono, but gained four at Michigan) to overcome poor qualifying efforts (30th and 37th at Pocono and Michigan, respectively).
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5. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 6)
With a crash frequency of 0.47, Bowman has become one of the sport’s most typical crashers but in between the spinning and hitting, he has flashed his high upside. Despite an utter lack of speed — cracking the top 40 (out of 43 cars) in average green-flag speed has proven to be a tall task; his BK Racing car ranked 42nd in speed in traffic at Michigan — he has passed up a storm the last two weeks (plus-0.38 percent and plus-5.84 in surplus passing value) and in four of the last five races (he registered a positive SPV four times for an average of plus-0.4 percent).
6. Cole Whitt, No. 26(previous: 5)
Since the 18th-place finish in Fontana, Whitt has been quiet, though that might not be too bad of a thing. His crashing (0.33 crash frequency) has been kept under control. Like Bowman, he is struggling with the lack of horsepower, but overcoming it via passing (plus-1.17 percent and plus-1.47 at Pocono and Michigan, respectively). Head-to-head with Bowman, Whitt’s car is faster on average and crew chief Randy Cox has provided ample position retention; they’re retaining spots 80.77 percent of the time and have gained 13 positions from short-pitting compared to Bowman’s minus-6.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 7)
A lack of horsepower at Michigan can’t be more glaring than when a driver fails to qualify as Truex did. The third DNQ of the season was the first under the watch of crew chief Joe Williams, who acted as Truex’s third crew chief in 15 races.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.