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 second quarter of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins next weekend at Talladega, and since this will be the last ranking of the first quarter I’m focusing this batch of evaluations on the biggest strength and weakness for each driver in this year’s rookie crop.
Strengths are easy. Every person enjoys hearing what others feel are their strengths. Weaknesses? Not so much. Since there are three whole quarters of the season to go (and, you know, the remaining races of an entire career) for this band of first-year drivers, there is plenty of time to correct the things that hinder their progress the most. So don’t panic, fanatics. It is still possible for your favorite rookie to develop into a well-rounded racer.
There was no movement in the rankings since the post-Texas report, but there is quite a bit to evaluate after each rookie’s first dip in Darlington’s waters:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42(previous ranking: 1)
Biggest strength: The passing. My God, the passing. His 53.07 percent adjusted pass efficiency (passing totals adjusted to omit positions gained during green-flag stops and pass-thru penalties) ranks fifth in the Cup Series. There isn’t another rookie that ranks in the top 20. He is also passing for value; his adjusted efficiency is 1.76 percent better, on average, than what is expected from a driver with an 18.4-place average running position.
Biggest weakness: Crashing, which should subside. He crashed three times in eight races, three of which came at Daytona. That once-in-seven races mark doesn’t mean he is impervious to crashes, though. Per his closing numbers, he is one of the most aggressive drivers in the waning laps of races, averaging a 2.7-position gain after each race’s 10 percent-to-go mark (dubbed by Team Penske’s Greg Erwin as “the red zone”). Aggressive drivers tend to crash more often. Case in point: Kurt Busch, who joins Larson in a five-way tie for the worst crash frequency in the series.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3(previous: 2)
Biggest strength: Closing out races. He and crew chief Gil Martin are simply having a field day right now picking up spots late in a race. They’re retaining the position at the beginning of the red zone 100 percent of the time, and advancing their position by 20.8 percent, the second-best position retention difference in the series. Those efforts amount to a 1.8-position increase per race.
Biggest weakness: Dillon struggled with passing last season, both in 11 Cup Series starts and in a title-winning NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign. He’s still having some difficulty, currently sporting a 49.27 percent adjusted efficiency (anything below 50 percent means a driver is passed more than he/she passes) and a minus-0.87 percent surplus value, indicating he is passing below his average running position’s expected output.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51(previous: 3)
Biggest strength: His passing numbers aren’t as pleasing to the eye as Larson’s, but they do the job. He is in the black in both adjusted efficiency (50.28 percent) and surplus value (plus-2.87 percent, which ranks fifth in the series). He discussed his penchant for passing with Athlon earlier this season, insisting he thought sub-par qualifying efforts was skewing his team’s perception. He is right about that if his last five races are any indication; after finishes of 30th and 31st at Phoenix and Las Vegas, he has finished 24th or better in four of his last five outings.
Biggest weakness: Allgaier and team have only finished in the top half of the field 12.5 percent of the time. It isn’t because they can’t do it. They have finished on the lead lap just once this season, which has limited their position progression late in races. They hold an 85 percent position retention rate in the red zone, advancing position in five of the eight races so far. If they could close races on the lead lap, their ability to gain spots — there are more cars on the lead lap than cars one or two laps down, on average — would reward them with significantly better results.
4. Michael Annett, No. 7(previous: 4)
Biggest strength: Up until a rough outing at Darlington, Annett was passing above his positional value, featuring a race-best surplus passing value of plus-16.7 percent at Phoenix. He gained five positions in the closing laps at Fontana to score a season-best 19th-place finish.
Biggest weakness: A few of the smaller tracks (Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington) wreaked havoc, doling out three of his four worst finishes. Though the Martinsville race represented his first start at the facility, it’s clear he needs some elbow room to race. Following this weekend at Richmond, he’ll get a chance to tackle Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
Biggest strength: Whitt is passing above value, averaging a plus-2.69 percent surplus that ranks sixth in the Cup Series, something that helped give a Swan Racing car that ranked 36th in average green-flag speed a more fighting chance at decent finishes. He finished better than 36th five times in the first eight races.
Biggest weakness: He isn’t getting a lot of help from his team. Even the steadfast closing he and Randy Cox have had — 85.71 percent base retention — doesn’t amount to much when the position they’re retaining is 30th place. His reported move to BK Racing would at least offer a chance for something different than what he has now.
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6. Parker Kligerman, No. 30(previous: 6)
Biggest strength: It has been a trying year for Kligerman, but there have been glimpses. He holds a positive pass differential in the four races he finished, he is a positive value passer (plus-1.88 percent) through all eight races and he managed to make his highest running position of a race his finishing position at both Bristol and Darlington.
Biggest weakness: The whole not finishing races thing is the clear issue. He is one of five drivers that are tied for the worst crash frequency and he is one of just four drivers to have crashed out of at least two races. Additionally, he has suffered two race-ending equipment failures.
7. Alex Bowman, No. 23(previous: 7)
Biggest strength: A byproduct of running off of the lead lap is the ease of position protection. Bowman and crew chief Dave Winston have held their red zone position 100 percent of the time, but they’ve also managed to advance by 6.3 percent, which ranks as the 12th-best mark in the series.
Biggest weakness: A sheer lack of speed. Bowman and team rank 35th in average green-flag speed and hold the fourth-worst average running position among Cup Series regulars. They’re essentially non-factors in the series, with their two best finishes coming at Fontana (22nd) and Daytona (23rd), the two races that provided the most random results of the first eight events.
8. Ryan Truex, No. 83(previous: 8)
Biggest strength: Unfortunately, there isn’t a statistical strength for Truex, but the fact that he is getting repetitions behind the wheel of a Cup car might suffice as a win, especially considering he has raced sparingly since 2011. The rust shows in his crash frequency — he has crashed three times in six races.
Biggest weakness: Truex failed to qualify for two races, the second of which was the straw that broke the camel’s back on the crew chief tenure of Dale Ferguson, who was replaced by Doug Richert prior to Darlington. Truex might be on the chopping block next if he doesn't offer more help to his team by way of passing. His 42.31 percent adjusted pass efficiency ranks as the second-worst in the series among regulars.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.