DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Third-generation racer Todd Gilliland leads another talented field in his quest to repeat as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion when the 2017 season takes the green flag in the NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150 at Tucson (Ariz.) Speedway on Saturday, March 18. Gilliland, who won six races a year ago and finished in the top 10 in 13 of 14 starts, will try to become the first repeat K&N Pro Series West champion since Mike Duncan went back-to-back in 2004-2005.
Gilliland will have his work cut out for him. 2015 series champion and Bill McAnally Racing teammate Chris Eggleston is also back this year to pursue the title, as is Ryan Partridge for car owner Bob Bruncati. Partridge finished just 13 points behind Gilliland in the overall standings last season, one year after finishing 13 points behind Eggleston for the championship, and won the Tucson event last year from the pole. In each of the two previous seasons, Partridge held the points lead late in the season before being chased down.
And while those three drivers have combined to win 11 races over the last two seasons, they are hardly the only ones who have hopes of holding the title trophy following the season finale in November.
Julia Landauer, who was the highest finishing female driver in West history a year ago, has joined forces with Partridge in the Bruncati camp. Nicole Behar is back to full-time competition this year following a year spent racing select events elsewhere in 2016, and Derek Kraus will compete out of the BMR stable following an impressive third-place finish in his debut with the K&N Pro Series East at New Smyrna Speedway last month.
RACE: NAPA Auto Parts 150 presented by Interstate Batteries
PLACE: Tucson Speedway, Tucson, Arizona
DATE: Saturday, March 18
TIME: 8:30 p.m. MT
AIRDATE: Friday, March 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT
TRACK LAYOUT: .375-mile asphalt oval
2016 WINNER: Ryan Partridge
2016 POLE WINNER: Ryan Partridge
EVENT SCHEDULE: Saturday, March 18 – Garage opens: 11:30 a.m.; Practice: 3-3:45 p.m.; Final practice: 4:15-5 p.m.; Group qualifying: 5:30 p.m.; Driver autograph session: 6 p.m.; NAPA Auto Parts 150: 8:30 p.m.
EVENT HASHTAG: #NAPA150
The Race: NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150 presented will be the first of 14 races on the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West schedule.
The Procedure: The maximum starting field is 24 cars, including provisionals. The first 20 cars will secure starting positions based on the group qualifying process. The remaining four spots will be awarded through the provisional process. The race will be 150 laps (56.25 miles) with a five-minute break occurring at or near the conclusion of lap 75.
NAPA 500 Challenge: The NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150 is the first race in a four-race “NAPA 500 Challenge Series.” With the K&N West competing in four events over an eight-day stretch to begin the season, NAPA is offering a $100,000 bonus to any driver to win all four races. $10,000 will be given to any driver who can finish in the top 3 in all four events; $5,000 to any driver finishing in the top 5 in all four; and $1,000 to a driver who finishes in the top 10 in all of them.
The Track: A semi-banked .375-mile asphalt oval, Tucson Speedway was known as Tucson Raceway Park until 1993 and was named Raven Speedway from 1968-93. The track was built in 1968 and originally has a clay surface. The track was closed in 2010 and was re-opened in 2013. Tucson re-joined the NACAR Whelen All-American Series in 2014.
Race Winners: There have been 13 different winners in the 14 previous K&N West races at Tucson. Ron Hornaday Jr., with two wins, is the only repeat winner at the track, while Ryan Partridge is the only active driver to have previously won there.
Pole Winners: In the 14 previous events, there have been 10 different pole winners. Butch Gilliland owns four poles at Tucson, including the inaugural pole for the K&N West in 1993, while Ron Hornaday Jr. won two poles at the track. No other driver has more than one pole at Tucson.
NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150 Notes:
Three-Car Team: Jefferson Pitts Racing will field three cars in the NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150 on Saturday, including a familiar face in a new seat. After running six races a year ago for car owner Dave Hanson, Will Rodgers will compete for the Rookie of the Year honors in the No. 7 for JPR. The former road racing specialist Rodgers, of Murrieta, California, finished seventh in two races at Utah Motorsports Campus last season. Vanessa Robinson, who competed at Tucson in the Whelen All-American Series the past two years and was the 2015 Arizona state Rookie of the Year with five top 10s in eight Super Late Model starts, will pilot the No. 55 for Jefferson Pitts. JPR also plans to field a Garrett Archer in the No. 27 this weekend.
Well Represented: Robinson is one of three women among the 26 drivers entered in the NAPA Auto Parts Tucson 150. Nicole Behar returns to full-time K&N Pro Series West competition this season for her family-owned team out of Spokane, Washington, while New York state driver Julia Landauer is slated to drive the No. 6 for Bob Bruncati for the first time. Landauer finished fourth in the final series standings in 2016, making her the highest-finishing female driver in series history.
Experience On The Box: Steve Portenga is the owner and crew chief for second-year driver Blaine Perkins and the No. 21 Four Star Fruit Chevrolet. And while the driver is still searching for his first win this season, Portenga has plenty of experience getting cars to Victory Lane. Portenga has won eight races as a crew chief and has three times led his cars to the top five in the final K&N West standings. He won three races with David Mayhew as his driver in 2014 en route to a third-place finish in the standings, having won a total of five races with Michael Self behind the wheel the previous two seasons.
First Time: Former National Football League linebacker Shawne Merriman, who played with both the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, will be a car owner for the first time this season. Merriman is the owner of the No. 36 that will be driven by Jesse Iwuji. Nicknamed “Lights Out” as a player, Merriman was a three-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection during his eight-year playing career.
Heading West: The first third of the K&N Pro Series West schedule coincides with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and its “NASCAR Goes West” swing, which continues through Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Four of the top six drivers in the Cup Series standings have won K&N West races in their careers — Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney — while Kevin Harvick (who is eighth in the current standings) was the 1998 series champion. Both Blaney and Logano won their first career NASCAR races in K&N West competition.
New Rules: Two new race and qualifying procedures will make their K&N Pro Series West debuts at Tucson. Qualifying times will be recorded through the group qualifying process, with NASCAR determining the number of groups that will run in five-minute segments. Drivers may run as many laps as they wish during their five-minute session, with their fastest posted lap counting for their qualifying time. The green-white-checkered finish is gone this season, too, replaced by the overtime line currently used in NASCAR’s national series. Once the field reaches the designated overtime line on the track, the race will be deemed official in case of a late caution flag.
NASCAR Home Tracks: Tucson Speedway
Tucson Speedway is home to NASCAR Whelen All-American Series racing for a fourth consecutive season, including Super Late Model, Late Model and Modified divisions. The Super Late Models will compete in Saturday’s program along with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
-NASCAR Home Tracks Press Release
-Photo Credit: NASCAR Home Tracks