“Sonoma has always been the one that I wanted (to win), for a few reasons,” Rodgers told NBC Sports. “It was my first NASCAR start ever (in 2016). The other part is we finished second to Kevin Harvick last year. As that may be considered a win itself, I still didn’t walk away with the hardware. Knowing where I made mistakes and why I didn’t win that race. I needed the chance to go back and do it.”
Rodgers said it “for sure” was the biggest win of his career.
“I say my success was not because I beat five Cup drivers,” Rodgers said. “It’s because I matured as a driver and I decided this is exactly what I’m going to do and I went and accomplished it. It wasn’t necessarily banking that I beat those guys, it was that I accomplished it myself. I’d say that’s something that will hopefully help me not let it go to my head because it’s just a way for me to say to myself, ‘I need to keep working harder.’ I need to finally now figure out how I can have that mindset going into a circle track and go win a race.”
Rodgers has now won the last four K&N road course races, including the K&N East race the previous week at New Jersey Motorsports Park. Though he’s competed in five of the six K&N West races this season, the NASCAR Next member is not slated for another K&N start until the Aug. 3 K&N East race at Watkins Glen, where he won last season.
“Road course racing, I’m so comfortable with,” Rodgers said. “I don’t really have to worry too much. I know when I’m in the element everything is going to fall into place and I’ll be comfortable.”
Before arriving at the K&N and ARCA levels (where he competes part-time for Ken Schrader Racing), Rodgers developed his racing skills in the Pirelli World Challenge, the Sports Car Club of America, the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, motocross and go karts.
He detailed how all of those racing disciplines has helped him in his transition to stock racing, which “combines all of those things while driving a boat.”
Go karts – “You learn how to be consistent and you learn how to read race tracks. You start to learn your competitive edge.”
Motocross – “You learn how to be extremely aggressive yet read terrain very well.”
Sports cars – “You learn how to really maximize your equipment and you really maximize the racing surface. The way that I put it, try to wring the neck of any car that you’re driving at any track you race on.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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 WillRogers‘ 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.”
“NASCAR Next highlights emerging talent who have shown the talent and intangibles it takes to achieve success at the highest levels or our sport,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR executive vice president & chief marketing officer, in a press release. “Alumni of the program are currently making their marks across NASCAR’s three national series and we believe members of this year’s class have potential to do the same.”
The class has five K&N Pro Series drivers, three ARCA Racing Series drivers and one Camping World Truck Series driver.
Here’s the nine drivers who were selected to the class.
Anthony Alfredo(@anthonyfalfredo), NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Driving full-time this year for MDM Motorsports in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Alfredo is also a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The 19-year-old Ridgefield, Connecticut, native recently competed in various late model divisions across the country, driving for JR Motorsports.
Hailie Deegan (@HailieDeegan), NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – The 16-year-old Temecula, California, native returns to Next for a second year, driving for Bill McAnally Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. The daughter of FMX legend and Monster Energy athlete Brian Deegan, Hailie was the 2016 Modified Kart champion in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series and was named the Lucas Oil Off Road Driver of the Year.
Riley Herbst (@rileyherbst), ARCA Racing Series – Returning to Next for a second year, Herbst is running full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the ARCA Racing Series, where he won Rookie of the Year honors a year ago. The 19-year-old Las Vegas native captured his first big-track win last June at Pocono, along with six top fives and 10 top 10s.
Derek Kraus (@derek9kraus), NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – The reigning NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year, Kraus claimed his first win and a pole award, along with nine top fives and 10 top 10s in 2017. Driving full-time for Bill McAnally Racing, the 16-year-old Stratford, Wisconsin, native has already captured a fourth-place finish at New Smyrna and a win at Kern County this year.
Chase Purdy (@chasepurdy12), ARCA Racing Series – Purdy returns to Next for a second year after capturing NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Rookie of the Year honors in 2017. The 18-year-old from Meridian, Mississippi, finished fourth in the standings last year, tallying five top fives and eight top 10s. This year, Purdy is racing full-time in the ARCA Racing Series for MDM Motorsports.
Will Rodgers (@willrodgers65), NASCAR K&N Pro Series – The 23-year-old Maui, Hawaii, native made two NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts in 2017 and won them both. Starting on the pole at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma, he finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick. Running all 14 races out west, Rodgers notched nine top fives and 12 top 10s, finishing fifth overall.
Zane Smith (@zanesmith41), ARCA Racing Series – Back for a second year in Next, Smith, 18, from Huntington Beach, California, has captured his first two career ARCA victories early in 2018 (Nashville and Talladega). Smith finished ninth in the ARCA standings a year ago, posting two poles, seven top fives and 11 top 10s. In his initial foray in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, Smith ran twice in the East, posting top-10 and top-five finishes, and once in the West, scoring another top-five showing.
Tanner Thorson (@Tanner_Thorson), NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – A former USAC Midget Champion, the 22-year-old Thorson brings his dirt racing experience to Next as he prepares to run various Touring Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races throughout the year. The Minden, Nevada, native also ran two ARCA races in 2017, claiming a top-10 finish in just his second series appearance.
Ryan Vargas (@The_Rhino23), NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Hailing from La Mirada, California, Vargas is competing full-time in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East for REV Racing. The 17-year-old finished third overall in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for California in 2017, racking up two wins, 15 top fives and 23 top 10s. Vargas is also a 2018 NASCAR Drive for Diversity class member.
Kevin Harvick makes plea for greater involvement in grassroots racing
Harvick, who is from Bakersfield, California, is racing at the local track before the Cup series competes at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, this weekend.
“I would love to build the K&N West Series back to what it needs to be, that enthusiasm, get to the right racetracks, help those kids,’’ Harvick said after Sunday’s Cup win, his third in a row in the series. “For me it was an eye‑opener last year when I went to Sonoma and saw the impact that running that race had on the competitors, the series.’’
Harvick won that K&N Pro Series West race, holding off Will Rodgers, a 22-year old in his first full-time season in that series last year.
“The fans will sometimes say, You’re cherry picking,’’ Harvick said of racing in a lower series. “I would tell you, nobody would know who Will Rodgers is unless it was for us running that race, having him on the radio show, bringing him to the pit box the next day, these guys take him in. If we can shed some light on those particular series, really build them back to where they need to be.’’
Harvick took exception with ISM Raceway no longer hosting the K&N Pro Series West. The series last raced there in 2015.
“One of the best things that happened for racing, it’s not just about NASCAR, was when we had the Copper Classic here,’’ Harvick said of the track outside Phoenix, Arizona. “We had midgets, sprint cars. Didn’t matter how many people sat in the grandstands. As competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona.
“It’s kicking those guys low on the K&N West Series that they don’t get to come and race at this particular racetrack because of the fact there’s a little bit of a pissing contest between a budget, what is right, what is wrong from a sanctioning fee side on Trucks and Xfinity. So they cut the K&N guys out. Cutting the grassroots side of things out is not the right way to do things.’’