Thursday, January 16, 2014

Forecasting Austin Dillon’s Rookie Season

With the new season fast approaching, one of the major story lines will be the return of the famed #3 car. Rookie Austin Dillon will have a giant spotlight on him all year: in addition to driving the #3, he has to fill the shoes of outgoing driver Kevin Harvick. Dillon also has to prove himself worthy of his Cup ride, to silence the criticisms that his grandfather and car owner, Richard Childress, paved a smooth road for him in racing. Dillon is coming off a fresh 2013 Nationwide Series title. He did it without any wins, but through strong consistency: 22 top-10 finishes. In this article, we consider Dillon’s chances in Sprint Cup for 2014 and beyond.

Because Dillon has raced only a handful of Cup races, the simplest way to project his Cup performance is by comparing him to other drivers after a similar level of experience in the Nationwide Series. Dillon has competed in 77 career Nationwide races, allowing us to compare the start of his career with other top drivers. We used this approach last year to accurately project Danica Patrick’s rookie performance.

The chart below plots every finish for drivers in their first 77 Nationwide races (or less than 77 if they haven’t raced that many). Dillon is ranked along with every driver who finished Top-30 in Sprint Cup last year. The blue box represents the majority of finishes for each driver. The red line in the middle is each driver’s median finish. The list is sorted by median finish, with the best drivers at the top.

Dillon’s performance puts him in the top echelon of drivers, with a median finish matching that of Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Joey Logano. These are all drivers who annually contend for the Chase, a strong sign suggesting Dillon will be a successful Cup driver over the long haul. 

Another way to project Dillon’s performance is by focusing just on his best races, not his average. By only looking at the top 25% of each driver’s finishes, we can highlight pure talent and upside potential. Winning ability is found early in drivers’ careers, and my past research suggests that upside potential is hard to teach: drivers either have it or they don’t. It’s easy to teach a driver to improve their bad finishes as they develop, but it’s harder to improve their good finishes. By comparing only the top 25% of a driver’s finishes, we can focus on who has the most upside potential.

In the chart below, each driver is sorted by the left-edge of the box, representing their top 25% finishes. Again, Dillon finds himself around top-notch company, like Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer. Both drivers regularly contend for titles, and it would be fair to expect Dillon to do the same in the next decade.

In summary, the prospects for Dillon’s Cup Career look good. He should be at least as good as last year’s rookie of the year, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who finished 19th in points. We should expect Dillon to do better than 19th in 2014 - in fact, Dillon could reasonably earn a top-15 finish every season. If the data above continues to have accuracy in predicting Cup performance, he might even make the Chase this year as a rookie.