Hailie Deegan, Derek Kraus working their way up NASCAR’s ladder

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In many sports, for an athlete to succeed at the highest level, they will generally hone their skills in a developmental league. NASCAR is no different. 

Just as up-and-coming baseball prospects have to prove their worth in the minor leagues before making the majors, many future Cup stars begin their NASCAR careers in a lower division such as the K&N Pro Series.

Comparable to single-A baseball, the K&N Pro Series, which is geographically split into two separate West and East championships, is one of the first steps on the NASCAR developmental ladder. In K&N Pro competition, young drivers not only fight for wins but also future rides.

For two of the most popular drivers in K&N competition, Bill McAnally Racing teammates Hailie Deegan and Derek Kraus, winning means everything. All other drivers – including teammates – are the competition. 

MORE: Hailie Deegan – “I see why a lot of these other girls haven’t made it” in NASCAR

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“You really have no allies,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “In the end, when it comes down to a couple of laps to go, no one is friends.

“You might be ‘buddies’ in the beginning and not run each other hard, but when it comes down to it, a win is a win, and I’ll do anything to get it. You focus on yourself in the end. You’re battling for rides. You’re battling for seats and equipment.”

Deegan proved she isn’t afraid to race even her teammates hard to win a race. In June, Deegan won her second West Series race of the season at Colorado National Speedway by making contact with Kraus on the last lap. Kraus spun, and Deegan went on to win the race.

Kraus was less than pleased with the result, and would later Tweet “Mama always told me if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all!”

With her two K&N West victories so far this season, Deegan is second in the series points standings, eight points behind Kraus. In the East Series, where she competes on a part-time basis, she is 10th in the standings. Kraus, who is competing in both championships full-time, also leads the East points standings. 

Kraus, who turns 18 in September, is looking to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win both the East and West championships in the same year. 

In 13 K&N Pro starts this season between both series, he’s accumulated five wins, eight top fives and 12 top 10s. In his most recent K&N West victory at Douglas County Speedway in Oregon on June 29, he led all 150 laps from the pole.

Even though he makes it look easy, Kraus admits that fighting for the win in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series week in and week out is no easy task.

“I think there’s a lot of good competition,” Kraus said. “You have Hailie, Kody Vanderwal, the Sunrise Ford cars (Jagger Jones and Trevor Huddleston), Todd Souza. There’s a bunch of other people where K&N will go to their local track and they’ll jump in a car and be really fast. 

“I feel like there’s a lot of good competition on both the East and West Coasts for the K&N season. There’s a lot of aggressive, hungry younger drivers that are in this series.”

That hunger and aggression has propelled many K&N Pro Series alumni to stock car racing’s highest levels. Former series champions who currently race in the Cup Series include Kevin Harvick (1998 West champion), Joey Logano (2007 East champion), Kyle Larson (2012 East champion), and William Byron (2015 East champion).

Earlier this month, 2016 K&N East Series champion Justin Haley won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, and 2018 East Series champ Tyler Ankrum won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway to earn a playoff spot.

So how does a promising 17 or 18-year-old driver handle the pressure of being one of NASCAR’s top prospects? Learning the ropes of stock car racing can be tough enough, but when a driver has expectations placed on them that they’re going to be the next best thing, constantly living up to those expectations can be tough. 

“You definitely think about that when you’re outside of the car and at home and hanging out with friends and stuff,” Kraus said. “But once I put my helmet on and get all strapped in and the race starts, I feel like that’s my happy place.”

Deegan, however, believes that the pressure is what you make of it.

“If you prepare beforehand and know that you’re in the best possible situation that you can put yourself in, there’s no reason to feel the pressure – because you’re doing the best you can,” Deegan said. “The only reason you’d be nervous is if you didn’t prepare beforehand.”

Confidence is key, but for a young driver to achieve the most out of their potential, a level-headed approach also is equally important.

“It’s funny because I think there’s a difference between confident and cocky,” Deegan said. “I feel like a lot of drivers are cocky, and I don’t want to be cocky.

“I want to feel confident in my abilities to where I’m not questioning myself. I want to be able to feel confident in my car, which I do right now, and I feel confident in my ability (to race) just because I’ve been putting a lot of work into it. I’m not trying to be cocky, I’m trying to show all of the work I’ve been putting into my racing.”

Hard work, by the way, has paid off for both drivers. For Kraus, his dominance in the K&N Pro Series led to his first Gander Outdoors Truck Series start for BMR at ISM Raceway in November, where he started and finished eighth. Kraus also competed in two Truck races earlier this year, at Martinsville and Dover, and will make two more starts later this year at Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Deegan competed in the first of a six-race ARCA schedule for Venturini Motorsports at Toledo Speedway in May and will make her final two scheduled starts for the team in October at Lucas Oil Raceway (Indianapolis) and Kansas Speedway.

With several months remaining in the 2019 NASCAR season, it may be too early to tell where each driver will be racing next season, but it is likely that both will race at least part-time at a higher level next year. 

“I’ve had people talk to me about opportunities to race full-time in Trucks and although I think I could go out there and have some good races, I want to go out there and come out swinging,” Deegan said. 

“Every single level I want to hit, and I want to make sure I can be good. I want to at least be in the front pack of every single level at minimum before I move up.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter 

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”