There were a lot of similarities between the drivers of the two dominant cars in Saturday’s PittLite 125 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The one difference between Kyle Benjamin and William Byron, though, put Benjamin in victory lane in “Thunder Valley.”
The two 17-year-old drivers, who both cut their teeth in scale cars and Late Models, were separated the most by Benjamin’s restarts on the preferred outside groove. As the leader with lane choice, Benjamin, of Easley, South Carolina, would use the high groove to his advantage. He held off Byron down the stretch, including one intense restart with 28 laps to go, for his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East win in his seventh career start.
“It was a really tough battle,” said Benjamin of his duel with Byron. “He’s really been strong all year. I was worried about him a little bit. He seemed to be really fast on the short runs. I could pull off a little bit on the long runs. I didn’t want the race to come down to a short run. I was confident that if I could get in front of him on a restart that I could pull it off.”
Byron, of Charlotte, North Carolina, took the lead from polesitter Jesse Little on the race’s first lap. He continued to show the way until a restart on lap 45, when Benjamin used a speedy restart to get by.
From there, it was all Benjamin up front, but a series of restarts through the middle and late stages of the race allowed Byron to catch back up and use a few different strategies to try to recapture the lead.
Byron gave Benjamin his best shot on a lap 97 restart. They raced side-by-side all the way into turn three before Byron ran Benjamin up the banking. Undeterred, Benjamin held onto the lead off turn four and never looked back.
“I was a little surprised by that because I was so high up on the racetrack and he kind of came up and doored us a little bit,” said Benjamin. “It’s alright I guess. As long as you’re in victory lane, it’s fine.”
Byron, the winner of the most recent NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Greenville earlier this month, knew that restart with 28 laps to go gave him an opportunity he had to take.
“He got me on that lap 45 restart and I could never really get it back, even trying to get a jump on him. That one restart (lap 97) was the best I felt like. I was able to get beside him and once I could kind of take his line away, we could kind of race side-by-side for a couple laps. I just couldn’t quite get him. He was too strong on the outside.”
Like Byron’s win the race before, Benjamin’s first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory came at one of the sport’s most historic facilities.
“It’s really cool to get your first NASCAR win at Bristol Motor Speedway,” said Benjamin. “It’s one of the tracks you really dream about winning at as a kid and to finally pull it off is awesome.”
Scott Heckert finished third, more than three seconds behind the winner Benjamin. Kaz Grala and Brandon Jones rounded out the top five.
Two drivers who overcame adversity through the course of the PittLite 125 event, Eddie MacDonald and Austin Hill, finished sixth and seventh, respectively. MacDonald, the winner of the 2014 edition of the Bristol event, had to recover from suffering a flat tire early in Saturday’s race. Hill, the point leader entering Bristol, crashed in practice Thursday and was forced to a backup car for qualifying. He qualified 11th without a lap on his backup car and raced to the seventh spot at the checkered flag.
Daniel Hemric, JJ Haley and Rico Abreu rounded out the top 10.
The next NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event is May 16, a combination event with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West at Iowa Speedway.
– By Matt Kentfield, Speed51.com Executive Director – Twitter: @MattKentfield
– Photo credits: Speed51.com