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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.”

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Hardest part of the K&N East season comes Saturday for Justin Haley

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Last December Justin Haley sat in the back of the room at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East banquet with what he cracked was his “participation trophy” for finishing sixth in points.

Haley watched as William Byron enjoyed all the perks of being the champion. Then he turned to his family.

“I said, ‘You know, that’d be cool to be up there,’ and they told me we’d get it this year,” Haley told NBC Sports during a champion’s outing at GoPro Motorplex on Thursday. “I guess I get to experience it now and see what it’s like.”

Haley will be formally honored Saturday at the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards. He’s looking forward to going from the back of the room to the spotlight at the front. It will be a nice feeling to be recognized and know his face will be the one on the screen all those in attendance will be looking at.

There’s just one thing about Saturday night Haley is not looking forward.

“The speech is low on my list,” he said with a laugh.

Speaking in front of the room filled with champions and competitors from the NASCAR K&N West Series, Pinty’s Series, Whelen Euro Series, as well as the Whelen Modified and Southern Modified Tour, might be the only thing that trips Haley up this season.

He made winning his first championship look easy with 14 top-10 finishes in 14 races. He finished no worse than ninth in those 14 races and had two victories and three poles. His average finish was 3.4.

It’s worth noting that 2016 was just his second full-time season and he entered it still looking for his first career win. Haley lets out a laugh of disbelief when talking about his statistics.

“We had 14 races and 13 top fives, which was incredible,” Haley said. “The other race we finished ninth in, which we were running third at Mobile (International Speedway) and it was my fault because I jumped a restart, so we should have 14 top fives. But it’s incredible because it goes to show HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks gave me a fast car but also a reliable car.”

There was also the luck factor, Haley admitted. His No. 5 Chevrolet wasn’t one to find trouble through cut tires or mechanical failures. He also led a total of 216 laps on the year.

“We had tons of luck on our side, which is great,” Haley said. “A season like that doesn’t come often. But I was just super thankful when I saw (my numbers) and just to have all that luck – it was really a season that you don’t come by very often, and I was lucky to just put my name on the map a little bit more.”

Since winning the championship at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30, Haley has enjoyed all the obligations that come with his accomplishment, as well as the various Twitter notifications, which he called “pretty exciting.” The night prior the karting outing at GoPro Motorplex, Haley and his fellow Touring and Weekly Series champions were welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame where they had dinner and placed their names in the Whelen Hall of Champions.

Haley also recently celebrated in the Bahamas by going on a cruise with his team. Each experience has been thrilling for the 17-year-old. But it all leads to the hardest part yet.

“It’s been done for a while,” Haley said of his banquet speech. “We’ll practice it a few more times. It’s definitely going to be – we’ll see how many times I can stumble.”

Rookie driver Cameron Hayley takes over No. 13 ThorSport Toyota

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NASCAR K&N Pro Series product Cameron Hayley will compete for Rookie of the Year honors this season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

Hayley, who finished second in K&N East point standings last year and also ran three Truck races, will drive the No. 13 Cabinets by Hayley Toyota for ThorSport Racing. That was Jeb Burton’s ride last season before he lost it this past January and landed his new Sprint Cup gig at BK Racing.

Hayley, an 18-year-old competitor from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, will be teammates with back-to-back defending series champion Matt Crafton (No. 88) and Johnny Sauter (No. 98).

“It’s always been a dream of mine to run in one of NASCAR’s top three series,” Hayley said in a team release. “I was able to get my feet wet last year running a few races, but to be able to say I’m running full-time this year is really a chance to live out my dream.”

“I’ll make the move to [team headquarters in] Sandusky [Ohio] later this year so I can be in the shop every day, helping the guys, and really getting to know these trucks. I want to take full advantage of everything ThorSport Racing has to offer, soaking everything in this season.”

Jeff Hensley will be Hayley’s crew chief. Hensley has 13 series wins, the most recent one last year with Sauter at Michigan International Speedway.

Hayley made all three of Truck Series starts last season with Turner Scott Motorsports. He finished 11th in his series debut at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, followed by a sixth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a 10th at Texas Motor Speedway.

In 2012 and 2013, Hayley ran the full K&N West seasons. He won the UNOH Battle at the Beach (Daytona) in 2013 and place second in points. Last year, he moved to the K&N East. He  scored one pole, seven top-5, and nine top-10 finishes.