Sergio Pena had a banner year in 2011. He won three NASCAR K&N Pro Series East races with the team then known as Revolution Racing. He contended for the series championship. All of that seemed to have the young racer from Winchester, Virginia in the spotlight for big things to come.
Over the course of the following two seasons, Pena’s on-track stats didn’t quite live up to the success of 2011. He earned just three top-five finishes in 14 starts in 2012 with Hattori Racing Enterprises. He made just three starts and never finished better than eighth in select starts with three different teams in 2013.
Pena may have needed nearly three calendar years to do it, but he was finally back in victory lane Saturday night in the JEGS 150 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Columbus Motor Speedway.
“Just such an awesome feeling,” said Pena after the Columbus victory. “I almost forgot what it was like. Words just can’t even describe what this is like.”
Pena’s fourth career victory nearly slipped from his grasp with 10 laps remaining. Cameron Hayley got by Pena for the lead, but the caution flag flew before a lap could be completed. NASCAR scoring reset to the last completed lap, which showed Pena as the leader. That allowed Pena to have the preferred inside groove on a green-white-checkered restart to claim the victory for the 21-year-old Rev Racing driver.
“Cameron got by me there at the end and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, no way,”claimed Pena. “Starting on the outside I thought it was going to be the same deal, but we ended up getting the inside back. That late caution we needed. The short runs we were really good on.”
Pole winner Scott Heckert led the first 56 laps before Ross Chastain, who was making his debut with the Hattori team at Columbus, took over until lap 60. Hayley then dominated the middle stages of the race and held the lead until Pena took over for good on lap 120.
Hayley worked his way back up and past Pena late in the race, but the caution flew and that ended any chance of Hayley earning his first K&N East win of 2014.
“I think we clearly had the fastest car all night,” said Hayley. “Just those restarts, we couldn’t get going for two, three laps and really struggled getting the car to turn. Then as the laps ran on we got way better. That late-race caution with three to go, that was our demise. We could not get the car to turn on the bottom and that’s it. We just needed to be a little bit better on those restarts.”
K&N East point leader Ben Rhodes finished third, but had to answer questions after the race about some late-race contact with Kenzie Ruston for third in inside of five laps to go.
“What a mess,” said Rhodes. “This place breeds rough racing. I know there are a lot of tempers that are flared tonight. I had to kind of use the bumper to get up through here, but there’s no way to pass. There’s only one line and you have to. It’s a three-eighths mile (track). I was getting the bumper used on me and I was using the bumper on other people. It seems like people are mad about that. I’m not mad because I understand the situation.
“I feel bad because I got into Kenzie Ruston, but I was also getting pushed from behind. Somebody checked up in front of her and she checked up and I had nowhere to go. I don’t know who owes an apology to each other. She kind of hit my fender afterwards, but it’s part of the racing here.”
New Hampshire K&N East winner Jesse Little finished fourth, while Pena’s Rev Racing teammate Ryan Gifford was fifth.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East takes a week off before the next scheduled event on August 1 at Iowa Speedway, which will be a combination event with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
– By Matt Kentfield, Speed51.com Executive Director – Twitter: @MattKentfield. Photo credit: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for NASCAR