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 final nighttime race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is on tap this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It can’t come soon enough for this year’s rookie crop, some of which have flourished on intermediate tracks and all of which are looking to remedy foibles in their season-long stat lines.
This week’s Athlon Rookie Report ranking lacks movement, but with six races remaining, there is still plenty of time for competitive gains to be made:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
What’s sort of amazing about Larson’s year — one filled with a plethora of fan-friendly, rim-riding aggression — is that he isn’t an aggressor for the majority of a race. In fact, he has finished inside the top 15 over 11 percent more often than he’s run in the top 15, which ranks as the third-highest positive discrepancy in the series (Casey Mears ranks first at plus-19.7 percent). It’s been evident in his best races, his three times finishing second at Fontana, New Hampshire and Kansas, when he did so without leading a single lap. He ranks 19th this season in mileage as the leader (he’s paced the field for just under 79 total miles), below the likes of AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
His team’s closing efficiency helps. Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy are averaging a one-position gain in the red zone (the final 10 percent of each race), amounting for the fourth-best position retention difference at finish among series regulars (plus-7 percent).
Stepping into the win column would obviously mean ridding himself of the goose egg that typically adorns his laps led tally after a race. Granted, he only needs to lead one specific lap in order to win a race, but to date his highest percentage of laps led in a single race is 7.5 percent, coming four weeks ago at Chicagoland.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Fun fact: Dillon has more top-20 finishes than Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne. His eighth-place finish at Kansas was only his fourth top-10 finish, though, and came as he simultaneously broke an eight-race streak of races in which he scored a negative adjusted pass differential.
It’s easy to dissect what needs to happen in order to turn those top-20 finishes into top-10 finishes. Dillon isn’t a terrific passer (he has a 47.9 percent adjusted pass efficiency for the season), his is the only Richard Childress Racing team to rank outside the top 20 in average green-flag speed, he hasn’t restarted well (63 percent retention from the preferred groove, 28 percent from the non-preferred) and his crew chief isn’t exactly aiding his effort (Gil Martin cost Dillon 14 positions during green-flag pit cycles at normal tracks this season, compared to a 16-position gain for Kevin Harvick last season). All of those corrections are ones that can naturally occur with more time in the Cup Series. Dillon needs repetitions. In the coming years, one or more of those problems will disappear.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Allgaier is one of 12 drivers to have crashed at least 10 times this season. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that six of his 10 accidents, a series high, were terminal, ending his races with a DNF on the results sheets. One such incident occurred last weekend at Kansas as he was caught in the Jimmie Johnson-Greg Biffle deck-shuffler on lap 86. Prior to the accident, his afternoon at Kansas was going well — he secured a positive adjusted pass efficiency (51.28 percent, his first positive efficiency in the last five races) and ran in the range of 19th to 24th.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 4)
Good news: Whitt’s passing efficiency has seen an uptick during the first four races of the Chase. After amassing a 48.5 percent adjusted efficiency during the 26-race regular season, Whitt recorded a 51.5 percent efficiency in the span of races from Chicagoland to Kansas. Better news: Whitt’s passing hits a high note at the quad-oval intermediates, such as Charlotte. In the four races on the Bruton Smith signature quad-oval tracks (Las Vegas, Charlotte, Texas and Atlanta) this season, Whitt holds a 50.13 percent adjusted pass efficiency, up 1.36 percent over his season-long efficiency (48.77).
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Annett’s 25th-place finish last Sunday at Kansas was his 10th top-25 finish of the 2014 season. Every single one of them came at tracks 1.5 miles or longer. It’s a good thing, then, that another 1.5-miler is next on the schedule. It’s likely that he’ll have to utilize all 500 miles of Saturday night’s race in order to pull off a finish in that range, because the Tommy Baldwin Racing duo of Annett (34.3) and Reed Sorenson (35.7) rank second to last and last, respectively, in average starting position among series regulars. Qualifying doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of a Cup Series race, but with 500 miles, pit stops and restarts — both elements that draw fields closer — can be abundant. He’ll at least have numerous chances to climb through the field, regardless of his qualifying result.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Saturday night’s Cup Series race won’t be the focal point of Bowman’s weekend. On Friday night, he’ll climb into the No. 5 car for JR Motorsports, which is essentially the NASCAR Nationwide Series wing of Hendrick Motorsports, in what amounts to a showcase race for the youngest driver in the Cup Series. The ride will ostensibly be the best equipment he’s ever driven. No pressure for Bowman, but in each of his 14 starts for this Ernie Cope-led team, Kevin Harvick finished inside the top 10. He won four times. One shouldn’t expect Bowman to score an easy victory, but his best career Nationwide Series finish — third at Daytona in 2013 — will be in his gun sight. That No. 5, with Harvick behind the wheel, has led over 813 miles of competition this season, the second most in the series.