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 analyzes the transaction that brings future Cup Series rookie Ryan Blaney to one of the sport’s most storied teams.
It’s not in a driver’s mindset to root for other drivers, but a slew of young racers owe a debt of gratitude to Kyle Larson, this year’s likely runaway Rookie of the Year, who is also within sniffing distance of a spot on the Chase grid. In a copycat sport (is there any other kind?), once one young driver succeeds, other organizations want young drivers to call their own. That’s what is happening right now, as two major organizations — Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske — have been integral in this year’s transaction season, promoting youth to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Roush Fenway announced in May that Trevor Bayne, a development driver for the organization since 2010, would be promoted to the Cup Series next season, acting as the de-facto replacement, for the departing Carl Edwards. Bayne’s promotion left a driver-shaped hole in the Wood Brothers Racing roster.
Last week, the Woods announced that Ryan Blaney would take the wheel of the famed No. 21 for a partial schedule in 2015. In signing Blaney, they didn’t just land a potential upgrade, they upgraded their race program by entering into a technical alliance with Team Penske, the organization for which Blaney has been a development driver since 2012. It’s a win for all parties involved.
Breaking down Blaney
Grab a hot dog and sit in the bleachers at any short track in America and it’s almost certain that you’ll see a fast kid. What you likely won’t see is a kid that has smarts in addition to speed. Most young drivers appear young in this regard, mashing the gas from the onset of limited-lap dash races. Blaney is one of the rare few that packed a veteran punch at an early age. He picked his spots wisely when, at age 15 and 16, he was competing in the veteran-heavy Pro All-Stars Series (PASS), a regional-touring Super Late Model division in which he claimed the series title in 2011. He won at Phoenix in his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West start by biding his time until the second half of the race, during which he tallied all of his 44 laps led. That high Race IQ has played a big factor in his early success in NASCAR’s rough-and-tumble Truck division.
In 2012, he scored a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Iowa and amassed a 2.611 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) through nine races, which ranked ninth out of 56 drivers. He produced a similar production rating, 2.386, in a full 22-race slate in the Truck Series last year, again ranking ninth and scoring one win (Pocono). This year, wins have eluded him; however, he ranked fourth in PEER prior to this week’s Michigan-Bristol jaunt, sports a career-best average finish (8.5) and ranks second in average green-flag speed for a Brad Keselowski Racing team that has traditionally lacked the lights-out speed that organizations like Kyle Busch Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing showcased in recent years.
Blaney also scored his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory last season at Kentucky behind the wheel of Penske’s No. 22 car. In June, I ranked him the second-best Cup Series prospect in America.
The Woods upgrade everything
“Ryan Blaney is better than Trevor Bayne” is arguably true, though it may not lead to better immediate results. It’s tough sledding for any rookie in the Cup Series after all, so anticipate that Blaney will experience a turbulent transition while assimilating to a field consisting of 42 other Cup-level talents. Bayne, outside of his 2011 Daytona 500 win, never broached serviceable production, ample passing (his 48.99 percent adjusted pass efficiency this year sits below the 50 percent par, though it does bring a positive surplus value) or finishing efficiency (his minus-20.8 percent top 15 efficiency ranks dead last in the series this season) in his four years driving partial seasons for the Woods.
Blaney, neither a plus-passer (48.21 percent efficiency), nor an efficient finisher (minus-12.3 percent T15E) in the Nationwide Series this season, doesn’t evoke a notion of an immediate upgrade, but he has demonstrated an ability to improve. His trouble with closing out races — in 2013, he retained his red zone position 57.14 percent of the time in Truck Series races — has changed after a crew chief switch from Doug Randolph to late-race setup specialist Chad Kendrick. Currently, Blaney is retaining red zone spots 70 percent of the time (a 13 percent enhancement) and is no longer dropping positions, evident by a position retention difference of zero percent, up from minus-18.9.
His maturation will likely take time, which the Wood Brothers team will happily provide thanks to the transaction kicker offered by Penske.
After years of hitching their wagon to Roush Fenway for engineering assistance, the Wood Brothers will enter into a technical alliance with Penske, which, in the last few years, is the fastest-growing organization, in terms of personnel and innovation, in NASCAR. This is a coup for the Woods who, despite not having Paul Wolfe on its roster will receive Wolfe’s spec setups and a peek at his notes — likely for a relatively palatable rate. In helping develop Blaney at Penske’s behest, their entire organization receives a jolt in engineering, something that Roush Fenway has been failing to maintain, evident in average speed and baseline results.
Penske fills partial-season void and, potentially, nabs a customer
If you’re at all privy to the NASCAR social media scene, you’ve likely seen Brad Keselowski get blasted by fans for competing in too many Nationwide Series races for Penske. The Tweeters feel that Ryan Blaney should get more races in NASCAR’s top training ground. It’s a fine sentiment, but its underlying logic is false considering that a) Blaney’s eight races in the No. 22 car, which includes this weekend’s start at Bristol, are equal to that of Keselowski’s total (8) and two more than Joey Logano’s (6) in that entry — and once the two Cup regulars tackle the Chase, it will likely free up more opportunities for Blaney, and b) those eight races, tacked on to a scheduled 22 Truck Series starts and two Cup Series attempts, equal 32 total races this year, which is the same amount Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and other Nationwide-only youngsters will get. With additional Nationwide starts, Blaney will take on a bigger workload this season than most Cup Series prospects across NASCAR’s three premier divisions.
Penske, it seems, values repetition.
Next year, his schedule might change, but right off the bat Blaney will get a dozen or so races at NASCAR’s highest level, attaining valuable experience without Penske forcing its efficient shop to take on a third, part-time team acting as a 10-race distraction. As they did with Keselowski, who ran partial schedules for Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing in 2009, Penske will be happy to tap Blaney for a full-time Cup Series ride under their banner once they and the driver are good and ready.
But this equivalent to a player loan in European football nets Penske something in addition to additional seat time for Blaney. In a grand hypothetical, let’s say Penske, with an engine shop at the ready having supplied Dodge motors until their switch to Ford in 2013, decides to either buy Roush/Yates Engines or produce their own version of a Ford engine. If that were to happen, it seems as if they have a team, in Wood Brothers Racing, eager to become a customer.
In a world of ownership alliances and a shallow sponsor pool, finding alternative sources of revenue have become increasingly important. RCR landed a reported $20 million this year from technical alliances alone. With the Penske machine churning out a large quantity of fast cars this season for Keselowski and Logano — the latter of which will be due a pay raise in the coming years (Keselowski got his late last season) — their coffers will need to be replenished. Though sponsorship acquisition hasn’t been a biting issue with the organization, as Penske’s business-to-business leverage is an enticing carrot, they also aren’t ones to turn down lucrative opportunities. The engine leasing business pays well, and whether it is resuscitated at Penske or not, a customer waiting list isn’t a bad asset to have.
Blaney’s promotion, albeit a subtle one amid bigger announcements, is a shrewd business move by Penske that warrants a no-brainer reaction from one of NASCAR’s longest-running operations. Blaney benefits, Penske benefits and the Wood Brothers, who lost a driver they covet three short months ago, benefit.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.