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.
“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.”