Nascar’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Duel

By Matteo Marcheschi

January 20, 2017

Nascar’s 2017 Rookie of the Year battle is set to be another intense duel. The two prominent rookies in the running this year are Daniel Suarez, the reigning Xfinity series champ, and Erik Jones, a seven-time winner and 2015 champion in the Truck series, and a six-time winner in the Xfinity series.

However, this rookie duo is a bit unusual. Last year’s top two rookies, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, entered their rookie season with 23 combined Cup starts. The 2014 contenders, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, had 17 Cup starts entering that season. In 2013, Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., had 15 Cup starts entering that year. You get the idea: rookies, especially the top-contending ones, tend to have some sort of prior experience in the Cup series before their first full season. This year, however, is a bit different. Suarez and Jones have a grand total of three Cup starts coming into the 2017 season, all of them by Jones, subbing for the injured Kyle Busch and suspended Matt Kenseth back in 2015. Suarez has no career Cup starts. The last contender for Rookie of the Year who ran their first full season without any previous Cup starts was Michael Annett in 2014.

That’s, of course, not to say they won’t have good seasons. They had immense speed in the 2016 Xfinity campaign, especially in qualifying, earning 11 poles combined, eight by Jones, and three by Suarez. Between the two of them, they only had one start outside of the top 10 (13th by Jones at the Glen). In 2016, their average starts were both inside the top four. This gives Jones the advantage in qualifying.

However, they vary when it comes to converting this speed to results. This is what the Cup series is all about: surviving the 400 or 500 mile races, avoiding mistakes, and being there at the end. Jones struggles when it comes to this. He won four races in the 2016 Xfinity series, but he failed to finish in as many races, all because of wrecks, throughout the 33-race season. Interestingly, all four of these incidents came in races where he earned the pole, which means he wrecked in half of his pole-winning races. Based on video, three of the four issues could be considered Jones’s fault, and oddly, two of those incidents (both caused by Jones) also involved his then-JGR teammate, Suarez. Suarez, however, only failed to finish two races, and one was because of an engine issue, the other because of a crash at Daytona. That means he finished 31 out of the season’s 33 races, with an average finish of eighth, versus Jones’s 11.6. Suarez, then, has the finishing position advantage.

In all likelihood, both of them will make the Chase. However, there’s a large amount of uncertainty in terms of performance under the pressure Nascar’s playoffs bring. Based on the 2016 Xfinity series Chase, Suarez seems to be the more appealing pick under this stress. He won three races that season, two of which were in the Chase, and one of which won him the championship. He also finished inside the top five in every Chase race. Jones failed to win in the Chase and crashed in the inaugural race in the playoffs. Each of his starts were inside the top two in the seven-race Chase, but he finished 15th or worse three times in that span.

So, while Jones may win more, Suarez’s consistency, which seems to increase under pressure, should pay off, and will probably win him Rookie of the Year. Who knows, maybe he’ll have a shot at the championship.

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