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David Smith’s Eight Battle-Ready Prospects

Motorsports Analytics Breaks Down Who To Watch
By David Smith, Special To NASCARHomeTracks.com
February 13, 2013 - 12:12pm

The Monday and Tuesday nights of Speedweeks were typically humdrum. Fresh off the Sprint Unlimited, a race that has quickly become a must-watch trial-by-fire event, our juices are flowing for more racing, more action and more talking points in what serves as the opening week of each new racing season. We crave racing and, until now, there has been nary a suitable course.

motorsports_analyticsThe UNOH Battle at the Beach changes all of this. The three-race showcase of three major regional series – the NASCAR K&N Pro Series (East and West), the NASCAR Whelen Modified and Whelen Southern Modified Tours and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series – is an event that allows you to become familiar with some of the top prospects in the NASCAR developmental ladder. Color me a thrilled observer.

NASCAR has been gracious enough to ask me to contribute analyses for some of these up-and-coming racers. It’s sort of my thing. On my home site, MotorsportsAnalytics.com, I scout, crunch numbers, analyze and rank accordingly. The inaugural edition of the UNOH Battle at the Beach consists of several names on my Top 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prospects list. I rank based on Cup Series preparedness, per a formula called “Prospect Score.” I also evaluate individual driver production through a metric called PEER, the Production in Equal Equipment Rating. Ever wondered how a driver would rate if all equipment was equal? Wonder no longer, because I’ve got you covered.

This particular list is comprised of what I deem “Battle Ready” prospects. These young drivers are your best potential race-win candidates for their individual Battle events. And if they don’t win the most-watched and comprehensively covered race of their careers to date, it’s okay. These guys have plenty of other accolades on which to fall back. Anything can happen with a one-race sample size; these drivers can be counted on to be successful over a full season:

Corey LaJoie, 21, Concord, N.C.

On Track: NASCAR K&N Pro Series (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 1st in K&N East (4.607 PEER); 11th overall … K&N East point standings runner-up; five wins

Analysis: Either dressed to thrash on a racecar or to impress with his “customized” Chuck Taylor sneakers, LaJoie doesn't conjure that of a heady racer, but, oh, that’d be a mistake. Arguably the best tire and equipment conserver in K&N East the last two last seasons, LaJoie was masterful, winning five races on a fraction of his competition’s budgets. His PEER – 4.607 – is the best in K&N East across the last two seasons, and better than Joey Logano’s mark from 2007 (4.462). He’s both a blue-collar worker and a racing savant whose effort to improve as a racer is of the Keselowski ilk.

Where You’ll See Him Next: LaJoie has a three to four-race schedule set with Tommy Baldwin Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year.

Kyle Larson, 20, Elk Grove, Calif.

On Track: NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (Monday); NASCAR K&N Pro Series and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 2nd in K&N East (4.500 PEER); 12th overall … K&N East champion; two wins

Analysis: Out of everyone on this list, Larson has the most upside. He won the 2012 K&N East title in his first actual year of Stock Car racing, a feat that will undoubtedly become more underrated as his career achievements accumulate. To hop from Sprint Car to Midget to Late Model to Stock Car and have immediate success in each, like he does, isn’t a learned trait. He’s as naturally gifted as any driver since Tony Stewart. His limited NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races last year revealed some wrinkles that need to be ironed; his pace needs to simmer for elongated races – he’s used to dash-style Sprint Car features – and his pass setup could use some polishing, but with his talent, those are mere nits being picked. Soon, he’ll be on your television sets every Sunday for years to come.

Where You’ll See Him Next: The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing development driver will compete for Rookie of the Year honors in the Nationwide Series for Turner Scott Motorsports.

Dylan Kwasniewski, 17, Las Vegas, Nev.

On Track: NASCAR K&N Pro Series (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 1st in K&N West (5.233 PEER), 16th overall … K&N West champion; three wins

Analysis: West Coast Stock Car fans wondered what it would take to derail the Greg Pursley six-win freight train of 2011 from its expected dominance in 2012. As it turns out, the answer was Kwasniewski, a talented teenager from the same Gene Price Motorsports stable as Pursley, who averaged a 3.8 finish in 15 races last season. Kwasniewski captured the K&N West crown in a campaign that showed significant improvement – from a 2.885 PEER that ranked 15th in the series in 2011 to last year’s 5.233 that led the division – and now, he’s headed east.

Where You’ll See Him Next: The Battle is his first race driving for Turner Scott Motorsports, the team for which he'll be driving in the 2013 K&N East division.

Bryan Ortiz, 24, Bayamon, P.R.

On Track: NASCAR K&N Pro Series (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 10th in K&N East (1.964 PEER), 40th overall … K&N East point standings fifth-place finisher

Analysis: It’s not this often a NASCAR neophyte is this good this soon. A former kart racer, Ortiz was a Grand-Am Sports Car competitor prior to joining the Stock Car ranks, in which, in his rookie season last year, he tied for the division’s lowest Crash Frequency (0.14, or twice in 14 races) and tied for the series lead in Relevance (finishes inside the top half of fields) with a 92.86 percent take. All of that, coupled with his serviceable production, makes his bigger and better sequel a must-watch in 2013.

Where You’ll See Him Next: With Kyle Larson graduating to the Nationwide Series, Ortiz assumes the mantle as the brightest prospect in the Rev Racing stable for the 2013 K&N East season.

David Mayhew, 30, Atascadero, Calif.

On Track: NASCAR K&N Pro Series (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 3rd in K&N West (3.786 PEER) … K&N West point standings fifth-place finisher, one win

Analysis: It might take a race like The Battle for Mayhew to properly showcase his capabilities. On his good days, he’s a stalwart; he ranked fourth in Truck Series PEER in 2011 with a 4.400 through five races. 2012, though, was a disappointment; he only scored one victory in K&N West and his five-race stint in Trucks, riddled with issues, resulted in a replacement-level 0.200. He’s capable of doing great things with a racecar – Iowa Speedway is invariably a grand stage for him – we just don’t get to see him in his greatest state on a consistent basis.

Where You’ll See Him Next: Trucks and K&N West are Mayhew’s modus operandi. He’ll race wherever and whenever his team’s owner, Steve McGowan, will allow him.

Derek Thorn, 26, Lakeport, Calif.

On Track: NASCAR K&N Pro Series (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Ranked 4th in K&N West (3.733 PEER) … K&N West point standings third-place finisher, two wins

Analysis: 2012 was Thorn’s first full season of K&N West racing and, for a Late Model lifer, it was a dandy; he averaged a 6.8 finish with his Bruncati Motorsports team and registered the fourth-best PEER in the division. He scored two wins (at Havasu and Sandia), but there’s room for polishing. His aggressive nature can leave winnable races on the table and against Western competition he should be more often victorious. At age 26, he has a shorter window than most prospects in which to prepare for any potential NASCAR premier division gig.

Where You’ll See Him Next: He’ll continue cruising in the Bruncati Motorsports No. 6 as one of the top K&N West title contenders this season.

C.E. Falk, 25, Virginia Beach, Va.

On Track: NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (Monday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Virginia Late Model Triple Crown Series champion … 16 wins across five racetracks; Whelen All-American third-place points finisher

Analysis: If you’re a regular Truck Series race watcher, then you’ve seen Falk’s name scroll across the bottom of your TV screen. He is not a back marker, though. In actuality, he is the most decorated young Late Model Stock Car driver in the game today with 52 career wins, three track championships (at Langley) and last year’s Virginia Triple Crown. It’s likely that he’ll be up front Monday night, but in the instance adversity strikes, his passing prowess is a site to behold.

Where You’ll See Him Next: Whether he is able to race in Nationwide or Trucks remains to be seen, but he’s set for another run at the Whelen All-American Series crown in his family-owned Late Model.

Ryan Preece, 22, Kensington, Conn.

On Track: NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour (Tuesday)

2012 Rankings & Accolades: Whelen Modified Tour point standings runner-up; two wins … 14 Whelen All-American Series wins across three racetracks; fifth-place points finisher

Analysis: For a 22-year-old series runner-up, usually, the world is an oyster; however, for Preece, a winner of two Modified Tour races and 14 Whelen All-American races in 2012, an uphill battle remains. The pipeline from Modifieds to Sprint Cup has been closed since Steve Park infiltrated the Cup Series in 1998, so any reopening will take extraordinary talent. Preece is a still a developing driver and the fact that he wins in bunches is a feather in his cap. Will winning in front of a national audience be enough to persuade a team or sponsor in taking interest?

Where You’ll See Him Next: Preece will continue to pilot Modifieds across the Northeast, with his Tour ride being the No. 16 entry for Flamingo Motorsports and owner Eric Sanderson.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.