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A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.

But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.

Deegan’s achievements are not measured against foes but history. She was the first woman to win an ARCA West race in 2018. Her runner-up finish in last weekend’s ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Evernham for the best result by a woman in that series.

Brian Deegan with daughter Hailie before last weekend’s ARCA race at Daytona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.

“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.

“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”

Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.

Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.

“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”

FADING HOPES

When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’

“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”

Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.

“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.

Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.

“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”

Kenzie Hemric, shown in 2015, was the first female selected to the NASCAR Next program in 2013. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.

Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.

Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.

“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”

Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.

Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.

She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.

One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”

So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?

McKenna Haase participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine in 2016 and ’17 but was not selected for the program either year. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.

“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”

She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”

Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.

“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”

While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”

Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.

The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.

“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”

“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”

The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.

A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”

Jennifer Jo Cobb has run more national series NASCAR races than any other woman except Danica Patrick. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”

Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.

She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.

Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.

“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old … and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.

“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”

Cobb recalls that her father won that night.

“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”

Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career,  if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.

“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”

EXTRA MOTIVATION

At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.

She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.

But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.

Hailie Deegan (No. 4) trails Michael Self on the last lap of the ARCA season opener last week at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.

“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”

Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”

Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”

Especially young girls.

“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”

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Hailie Deegan says runner-up finish at Daytona is like winning

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Self celebrated, but Hailie Deegan and her family rejoiced Saturday night.

Deegan finished second to Self in her first ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway. Deegan’s finish tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Crocker for the best finish by a female in an ARCA race. Robinson finished second at Daytona in 1999. Crocker placed second three times, the last time in 2007 at Kentucky.

MORE: A crucial year for for Hailie Deegan’s career begins at Daytona 

“Second is winning this weekend,” said Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s development program in the offseason. “I think winning the first race would have been a little too high of standards for us this season. Everything would have been downhill. So at least I have something to work toward.”

The 18-year-old smiled as she spoke.

Her father couldn’t stop smiling. He and wife, Marissa, embraced Hailie after the race with Marissa shouting “awesome!”

“Her day will come,” Brian Deegan said on pit road of his daughter. “She’s got momentum. The main thing with her is she had a lot of momentum at the beginning of last year. Once she gets momentum, it’s on. She doesn’t want to lose. She’ll work 18 hours a day. She’ll work at the gym, study tape. She’s serious. We’re on a mission.”

Saturday’s mission for Deegan was to learn. She ran in the top 10 most of the race and learned from spotter Eric Holmes, who encouraged her at times and told her what not to do other times.

Most of the incidents were behind her in Saturday’s 80-lap race but one happened in front of her. She was pushing Chuck Hiers through Turn 2 when the contact turned Hiers and sent him into the wall.

“There were moments where I thought, ‘God, I shouldn’t have done that,’ “ Deegan said. “And there were moments when it was like, ‘Okay, that is good.’ People have to keep in mind we are ARCA racing. We aren’t Cup racing. We aren’t Xfinity racing. Most of the people here are here to learn and eventually get to that level and work out the kinks at this level.

“I think I learned a lot of good takeaways from this race. Some things I could have tried and been more aggressive on, but everything I did in this race got us that second place finish.”

Next for Deegan and the ARCA Series will be March 6 at Phoenix Raceway.

“I feel like the first race sets the tone for the season,” she said Saturday. “Having a good first race can help keep the ball rolling and help the guys at the shop. When you are on a nice, positive high level, you bounce that off each other and the work ethic and it just helps for the rest of the year.”

Hailie Deegan looking forward to being a ‘focus’ of attention at Ford

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CONCORD, N.C. — Hailie Deegan‘s future with Ford started in style.

The 18-year-old began the next chapter of her career Tuesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center by slowly piloting a blue Ford Shelby 350 through a set of dark curtains before taking questions from the media.

That followed a hype video showing Deegan doing donuts in another Ford car.

Hailie Deegan emerges from a Ford Shelby 350 as part of her introduction as a member of Ford’s driver development program. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The theatrics on her behalf are one of the reasons why, after a few years with Toyota, she’ll be be spending “a lot of birthdays” as a Ford development driver.

But it mostly came down to there not being enough rides for her in Toyota’s stable to properly propel her up the ladder.

“At the end of the day, Toyota, they introduced me to the NASCAR world … they pushed me into it, they gave me a really good base and that’s something I’m super thankful for,” Deegan said. “But at the end of the day, there’s so many Toyota drivers and there’s not many seats. I think we made the best decision for my career long-term.”

Deegan joins a development program that boasts Chase Briscoe as its founding driver.

“There’s going to be more of a focus,” Deegan said. “That’s something I was super adamant about. I want to be focused on, I want to have the attention over here to be a better driver and get developed and that’s something that stood out to me and I think that’s going to help my career.”

Ford recently entered a partnership with the David Gilliland co-owned DGR-Crosley that will add to its efforts.

A three-time winner on what’s now the ARCA Menards Series West, Deegan will compete full-time with DGR-Crosley in the ARCA Menards Series while also competing in select IMSA races, beginning with the Jan. 24 Michelin Pilot Challenge endurance race at Daytona International Speedway.

The looming ARCA season won’t be Deegan’s first interaction with DGR-Crosley. She competed in one ARCA Menards Series East race with the team this year at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I got used to the team, I got to feel everyone out, see what I liked, didn’t like and there was a lot of things that I liked about them,” Deegan said. “I saw how hard their work ethic was. I really like how David, he was a racer. He understands it. He has a son (Todd Gilliland) that races, he knows the game of trying to build your kid into the ranks of NASCAR and running a team at the same time while still being a racer. That’s something I think is a really good combo that’s just going to help his team get better and better. Especially with how much Ford is supporting them, getting behind them.

“The resources they’re giving them is insane.”

Among those resources now at her disposal is Ford’s “marketing push.”

“That’s something I didn’t really have in the past with the team I was with and the manufacturer, that’s something (Ford wants) to push more,” Deegan said. “Push more stuff that’s away from racing, that’s ‘OK, let’s gets you in a Mustang, lets get you in a truck and let’s do some cool videos and stuff like that’ and that’s something I’m big into. I love social media. I love doing stuff like that and that’s definitely a push they want to connect us with.”

All this is work towards one goal: reaching the NASCAR Cup Series.

Both Deegan and Ford Performance Motorsports’ global director, Mark Rushbrook, preached the importance of Deegan moving up each step on the stock car racing ladder when she’s ready.

“We want to make sure, and Hailie wants to make sure, her team wants to make sure, she progresses to those levels when she’s ready to ensure success at each step,” Rushbrook said.

While Ford didn’t announce an expected plan for her progression, Deegan’s father, action sports star Brian Deegan, hopes the opportunity arises for her to “dabble” in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series at some point this year.

“I think she needs that,” Brian Deegan said. “She wants to race Eldora for sure, just because it’s a dirt race.”

He even mapped out the ideal structure for his daughter over the next few years.

“It would be ARCA (in 2020), 2021 trucks, 2022 trucks, 23′, 24′ (in) Xfinity is kind of what we’re hoping and laying out, is kind of our goal for her to have that path and then get to Cup,” Brian Deegan said. “By then I think she should have enough experience on everything to be ready, to be competitive.”

Hailie Deegan admitted it’s been difficult to see her fellow competitors from the ARCA East and West Series get a shot at the Truck Series before she does.

“It’s been really hard, just going to ISM (Raceway) at Phoenix (in November,)” she said. “It was so hard for me because my teammate (Derek Kraus at Bill McAnally Racing), he was racing in the truck race and I was sitting there on pit road and I was like, ‘Man, if he can do it, I want to do it.’ Seeing all my friends reach trucks, that’s something hard for me to kind of hold back on, ‘Ok let’s race ARCA, let’s gain experience, let’s get better before I go there.'”

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Rising NASCAR star Hailie Deegan: ‘I put my helmet on the same way everyone else does’

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At 17, Hailie Deegan is far from a conventional teenager.

At an age where many of her peers are learning to drive or getting a driver’s license for the first time, Deegan not only has been driving race cars and off-road vehicles for nearly a decade. She also has become one of the rising young female stars in NASCAR racing:

  • In late September, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race (Meridian Speedway in Meridian, Idaho).
  • In so doing, she became only the second female race winner in NASCAR history, joining Shawna Robinson, who won three races in 1988 and ’89 in the now-defunct NASCAR Dash Series.
  • Deegan wrapped up the season by winning K&N Pro Series West rookie of the year, finishing fifth in the final standings.
  • Early last month, the Temecula, California, native was named to Forbes’ “Women In Sports to Watch in 2019.”

And now Deegan has her sights set on not only winning more races in 2019 but also to capture the K&N West championship. If she does, she’ll add another page to her NASCAR history book, becoming the first female champion in any NASCAR series.

“I’m not done, I still have so much more to accomplish,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s like there’s a ladder, and this is the first step up the ladder.

“You don’t feel accomplished when you get that first step on the ladder. You feel accomplished when you’re on top of the ladder. I want to be on top, and I’m going to do everything in my ability to get there.”

A straight-A, home-schooled student who graduated high school at 16, Deegan begins her second full season in the K&N Series on Sunday at New Smyrna Speedway (to air on NBCSN on Feb. 13 at 6 pm ET), just a few miles from where she hopes to race one day: Daytona International Speedway.

Deegan drives for one of the most successful K&N teams, Bill McAnally Racing, with primary sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts and Toyota.

“I don’t want to be cocky, but I want to win a championship and feel that with my team, I have the ability,” Deegan said.

When she and her team arrived last September to race at Meridian Speedway — a quarter-mile paved oval — she already had compiled two runner-up results and seven other top-10 finishes in her first 11 starts (she finished the K&N West season with 12 top 10s in 14 starts).

But she was hungry for that elusive first win.

“We just really had to find what worked for me, what crew guys worked well with me, and who didn’t,” Deegan said. “I think we figured that out halfway through the season, and from that point, we were running in the top three or top five almost every single race.”

Deegan and her team felt so confident about the Idaho race that they broke into song and dance beforehand to the driver’s favorite song, Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”, to get pumped up.

It’s a habit she picked up from her motorcycle and off-road racer father Brian Deegan, who also listens to music to motivate himself before his own races. One of Hailie’s crew members brought a portable speaker to continue playing the song as the team paraded and pushed her car onto the starting grid.

Deegan started fourth and stayed in the top five the entire race. On the final lap, she applied a textbook bump and run to then-teammate Cole Rouse two turns from the finish line. She sailed past to capture the checkered flag and put her name in NASCAR’s history books.

The winning maneuver was not happenstance.

“We went into that race with aggressive intentions,” Brian Deegan said. “We knew it was a short track, flat, so we went to the go-kart track and practiced bump and runs. We must have practiced 1,000 of them.

“It’s a fair race move. You just have to perfect it so you don’t knock a guy out. We went into that race and planned to do that move. When it came down to the last lap, I was like, ‘Hailie, you know what to do. We can make friends later.’”

While Rouse was initially upset at being knocked out of the way, he soon cheered for such a big achievement.

Derek Kraus, one of Deegan’s fellow teammates at Bill McAnally Racing, is also 17 and entering his third year in K&N competition with BMR. He’s watched her develop.

“She shows a lot on the racetrack,” Kraus said. “She adapted to it really well and really fast, too. It takes other drivers a little longer than what it took her to get used to K&N cars. It’s way different from what people expect. It’s a heavier stock car. You definitely have to know what you’re doing. She’s worked her tail off to get where she is.”

Kraus, of Stratford, Wisconsin, admires Deegan not just for her ability on the track but also her demeanor off it.

“She always seems to be in a happy mood and is uplifting,” Kraus said. “She’s never down, no matter how bad the night is or what happens on the racetrack. I think I’ve only seen her mad just once, and that’s pretty good for a whole season. She’s a good teammate to have around because she’s always happy and laughing.”

Kraus noted that it doesn’t make a difference that Deegan is female. Once she straps into her car, she’s a racer first and foremost.

“Her being a girl or being my age, once you put that helmet on, everyone’s the same, everyone’s equal,” Kraus said. “No matter if you’re driving against a 15-year-old or a 40-year-old, you’ll never know the difference once you get that helmet on.”

Deegan got the racing bug from her father, one of the most successful freestyle motocross riders in the United States and the most decorated rider in X Games history.

“My dad has pretty much taught me, he’s built this thing with me, he trains with me, practices with me, goes to the gym with me, we battle each other at the go-kart track,” Deegan said. “We’re so competitive with each other, and I feel like we both make each other better because we’re so hard on each other, just trying to be the best we can.”

Brian and Marissa Deegan have three children who all have become racers. Hailie is the oldest, while 12-year-old brother Haiden is a multiple champion in motocross, and 8-year-old brother Hudson is competing in both motocross and karts.

But it’s Hailie that has been the biggest chip off the old block racing-wise so far.

“I tried to teach her all my tricks and everything it takes to win and the ability to learn on her own,” Brian Deegan said. “My goal is one day (she) will surpass me.

“Hailie rode dirt bikes when she was little, which I thought was a good foundation for her to start on. But when it comes to girls in motorsports, in my opinion, the reality is there’s a lot more opportunities on four wheels than two.

“So (racing cars) is something we worked towards. It’s not by accident. Ever since she was 8 years old, she’s been racing with me. About 2009, we got her into racing trucks and go-karts, dirt, off-road karts. Each year, she got better. Then she started winning races and started winning championships, and it started snowballing from there.”

By the time she was 12 years old, Hailie told her parents she was ready to go all-in as a race car driver.

“That’s when I thought this is going to be her path,” Brian Deegan said. “It really wasn’t just our decision, it was something she wanted to do, and that’s kind of where it started.

“We’re excited to conquer this sport as a family and win the fans over. Hailie is what you see is what you get. She’s not putting on a front. She’s giggly, fun, no bad bones in her body. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a bad word. We’re very fortunate.”

Deegan is serious about everything she does racing-wise. That includes how she revels in beating her father in regular go-kart races they compete in against each other – with a lot of good-natured trash talking between them.

“We go and have the gnarliest battles out there; we’ve actually totaled a couple karts,” she said with a giggle.

Brian Deegan also laughs about some of the on-track battles he’s had with his daughter.

“Usually, that’s where you start blaming the cars or tires, the kind of standard excuse by racers,” Brian Deegan said. “You can always find an excuse. We definitely talk crap to each other and give each other a hard time on who’s faster. That’s friendly competition, it’s what keeps you pushing to be better.

“Every day, we talk about racing. Every day, we talk about strategy. Why (and) how we’re going to win, who we’re going to beat and how are we going to do it. That’s a daily deal that we’ve done.”

It’s not every day that a lower-rung NASCAR race can be life-changing, but it certainly was in Hailie Deegan’s case. Not only did her victory in Idaho affirm that she could win a race, the national attention she’s received since might be a lot for a 17-year-old — but not her.

“At the beginning of last year, I was just completely lost,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I’m doing. I’m still learning. I didn’t know where my place is in the stock car world. I was just lost. I didn’t know the terms about the car, didn’t know what to change, and then about halfway through the season, it just clicked, and everything just fell into place.

“Ever since then, we started running up front every single race. Coming into this year, I feel a lot more confident in myself. I know I have the abilities. I know my place. I know what to do now. I know what to work on, and I know my strengths and weaknesses.

“As soon as last season ended, I was ready for it to start back up again. I’d say, ‘How many more months to go?’ I’ve literally been counting the days. I hate the offseason.”

In just a few days, she’ll be back in the driver’s seat at New Smyrna.

Much like what her teammate Kraus said, Deegan’s competitiveness rises to the surface in races. But outside her race car, she has not let the success get to her.

“There’s nothing I hate more than an over-cocky person,” she said. “I have friends that’ll be all cocky and then go out and get their butt whooped. They’re the worst.

“I don’t try to call stuff before it happens, because in the end, it’s not always going to happen. I’d rather be humble and wait for myself to succeed and then take it all in from there.”

While Deegan wants to win a championship, she remains grounded. Her maturity, savviness and philosophy belie her youth.

“My dad has kept me real good at just focusing on racing,” she said. “In the end, success comes with results, and you’ll get everything with results, so let’s just make it easy and get right to the point and get those results.”

Deegan achieved all her goals last season. For 2019, she hopes to earn at least three more K&N West wins and one in the K&N East Series (in which she will run select races), along with the West championship.

Where would she go from there?

“The best is yet to come,” Brian Deegan said of his daughter. “We’re just starting. We’re just getting in it. She has a legitimate chance of being the first girl to win a NASCAR championship, and that could happen this year.”

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NASCAR Next’s Will Rodgers, Hailie Deegan get boost from Kevin Harvick

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Hailie Deegan and Will Rodgers are different, from each other and the typical NASCAR driver.

Of the nine NASCAR Next members revealed May 15, Deegan, 16, is the youngest and Rodgers, 23, is the oldest.

The daughter of action sports star Brian Deegan and a mother whose “full-time job” is taking her to races, Hailie is a Southern California native who came to NASCAR from off-road racing. She listens to rap and hip hop.

Rodgers, whose father owns a brewery and his mother is a clinical social worker, was born in Hawaii and has competed in sports cars, motocross and off-road racing. He listens to classic rock and punk rock.

The two drivers have one thing in common.

They have Kevin Harvick in their corner.

Hailie Deegan gets out of her car after a practice lap before the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100’s at Tucson Raceway Park on May 5. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Hailie Deegan has a brief audio recording that she’s listened to a handful of times.

It was recorded minutes after the conclusion of her K&N Pro Series West debut on March 15 at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, California.

The recording is of her father, Brian Deegan, talking to Harvick, who was fresh from finishing fourth in the race.

The 2014 Cup champion told Brian Deegan he was impressed by his daughter’s performance. She finished seventh in the 175-lap race after starting eighth. Harvick said he’d keep in touch with them.

“He still does to this day, which is really cool,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “He always asks how I’m doing at the track, how I am doing compared to the other competitors, which is really cool on a personal level and I think that it was just something that’s not a confidence booster but a motivator.”

The day after the Kern County race, Harvick was asked at Auto Club Speedway what driving talent he’d discovered in the race.

He singled Deegan as having the “most potential.”

“I think as far as potential and reach and racing knowledge and getting in the car as young as she is, that would be the one I would pluck out of the series and say that’s the one we want to be a part of,” Harvick said.

Since then Harvick has had Deegan on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours,” she’s graduated from high school and earned her first two top fives on May 19 at Orange Show Speedway and June 9 at Colorado National Speedway. She’s seventh in points through five races.

Harvick reaffirmed his praise of her after he won last month’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I think Brian is really good for her because of the fact she just needs to go race and learn the ins‑and‑outs, get with the right situations as she moves up, not move too fast,” Harvick said. “She has the most potential of a female racer because she gets it. She’s very into what she’s doing. It’s not about everything else. It’s really about the race car and ‘How do I drive it faster?’ She’s just got her stuff together.”

As the only woman in the NASCAR Next program, which highlights up and coming drivers in stock car racing, Deegan recognizes that NASCAR is a sport in search of “something unique” to build its future on.

“I know they’re looking and searching for these aspects of, their fan base right now is all these people, these older generations and right now they’re looking for the new, hip generation of kids and teens coming up,” Deegan said. “The NASCAR Next program kind of plucks those kids out and sees these people with personalities and (who) want it that bad and are willing to do the off-track work, and I think that’s what NASCAR needs right now.”

Does Deegan consider herself hip?

“I don’t know if I consider myself hip, but I consider myself different.”

Kevin Harvick during last year’s K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

For Rodgers, the most surreal moment of last June’s K&N West race at Sonoma Raceway was when spotter Rick Carelli came over the radio in the closing laps.

“Third place is nowhere to be found,” Rodgers recalls Carelli saying.

It was just Rodgers and the leader.

The leader was Harvick, who was making his first start in the series since 2007.

“Oh my gosh, we’re running toe-to-toe with a Cup champion right now,” Rodgers thought at the moment.

The race, essentially at Rodgers’ home track, was the one his team “had been building up to all year.”

He qualified on the pole. Harvick started sixth.

“Now if you had told me I would race toe-to-toe with Kevin Harvick all day, that might have been a scenario again where I wouldn’t have believed you,” Rodgers said.

Harvick won the race, but he made sure to bring attention to Rodgers, who like Deegan, he had as a guest on his radio show.

“Being able to race toe-to-toe with Kevin and pull away from everybody else in the field and then for him to get out of the car and rave about me was very unique,” Rodgers said. “I’d say that’s definitely the best second place I’ll probably ever get.”

Harvick then went out of his way to celebrate with Rodgers in victory lane two months later when Rodgers earned his first career win in the K&N East race at Watkins Glen.

Rodgers also tries to keep in touch with the SHR driver despite his busy schedule.

“Whether or not Kevin has a hand in (NASCAR Next) personally, just by him being an advocate for me and then voicing me to the media, that has really opened the eyes and ears of a lot of people within NASCAR, within the industry, sponsors,” Rodgers said. “It’s helped on many levels. … My credibility has just been elevated so high after he said those things.”

This season Rodgers has competed in four of the first five K&N East races, earning two top 10s. He’s also earned two top 10s in four ARCA starts racing for Ken Schrader.

Harvick expects Rodgers to continue to rise if given the opportunity, especially when it comes to road course racing.

“I don’t think anybody would have known Will Rogers‘ name if we hadn’t run the K&N West Series race last year,” Harvick said after his All-Star win. “He’s got his stuff together. He just needs an opportunity to come out and show what he’s got. When the road course stuff shows up, Will is probably capable of being in an Xfinity race or a Cup race. In the right equipment on a road course, he’d be a top-10 competitor.”

Harvick has only competed in two K&N races in the last year, but each one has benefited someone else.

“It’s interesting to see,” Harvick said. “That’s really been our goal running the K&N races, is to expose those drivers to get opportunities. Just glad that it’s working out for a couple of them.”