At a track such as Tucson Speedway, a competitor has the ability to fly in under the radar and surprise many of the fans in attendance. Kody Vanderwal accomplished just that winning not one, but both of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100-lap features on Saturday night.
“I was pretty confident coming into here,” Vanderwal told Speed51.com. “I knew we would be fast. I love this track. It’s a lot of fun and it kind of suits me.”
Although from LaSalle, Colorado, Vanderwal has made the Arizona 3/8-mile a home away from home, participating and winning in various support divisions. Friendships made over the last couple years had launched him into his first full season in the series in 2017, netting two top five results.
Even still, the other 17 drivers in the field may not have been prepared for a dominant performance in the first feature of the evening. Vanderwal took the top spot from fast qualifier and winner of the only event of 2018 leading into the night, Derek Kraus, 10 laps in.
From there, Vanderwal could make his car work in both the outside and inside grooves and despite pulling away on the abrasive surface, maintained the large advantage.
A potential heartbreak came with six laps remaining when the only yellow flag of the race flew, setting up a green-white-checkered restart alongside former series champion Derek Thorn. Thorn and Vanderwal dueled on the final two circuits with the 17-year-old youngster earning his first K&N West checkered flag.
“The first half of that first race went by so slowly,” Vanderwal remarked, despite the quick pace. “That caution came out and I was a little worried, but I knew I could beat him. I knew my car was a little bit better. I just had to really be careful, not spin my tires, and get through the gears.”
The second race painted a slightly different picture, but had a similar start and result. With the field set by fastest best lap in the first race, Kraus started from the pole once more with Vanderwal not far behind. This time, 2016 Tucson K&N West winner Ryan Partridge accelerated out to the early lead.
Partridge led the majority of the distance, but had Vanderwal close on his heels during many of the laps. Thorn then entered the mix once again after conserving his equipment throughout the early going. A restart with less than 20 laps to go handed Thorn the lead, but it was Vanderwal again who found a way by.
The two competitors rubbed for the win in the closing laps with Thorn ultimately falling to third behind teammate Partridge and settling for a good points day.
“The last 100 our car was better than the first 100, but I think everybody else adjusted as well,” the Bakersfield, California driver noted. “We saved in the first. Not everybody really knew what to do there. We got fortunate enough to save the right amount of tires for the end of the run and just didn’t quite pull it off.
“The second race we did the same thing and (Partridge) was better and (Vanderwal) was just as good. We made a run there at the end and gave it our best.”
While it was a dream day for Vanderwal and his father Rudy, another team member with a legendary connection was perhaps the most emotional.
Much of the attention leading up to the evening’s festivities was focused on the return of 90-year-old Hershel McGriff in his historical start. The NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, albeit six laps off the pace, completed the entire distance of the first race to the checkered flag.
Family and friends from all over the country were there to see him compete. One of them was McGriff’s grandson, Jason Dickenson, who serves as crew chief for Vanderwal.
“It feels surreal to me,” Dickenson mentioned. “This team has put in a lot of hard work and the Lord brought us together to do great things. Kody’s a great talent and he lets me showcase my talent. I have no words for it. It has been spectacular.”
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West heads to the San Bernadino, California bullring known as Orange Show Speedway next in two weeks.
For an on-demand replay of Saturday night's Trackside Now coverage, click here.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com National Correspondent – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100s No.1 Results
NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100s No. 2 Results