Derek Kraus played his cards right over and over again Monday night at New Smyrna Speedway. After starting the race back in the 16th position, Kraus used a perfect mixture of patience and aggressiveness to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season opener.
Driving for Bill McAnally Racing, the Wisconsin native took the lead for the first time on Lap 136 of the 175-lap race. Kraus capitalized when Colin Garrett and Ty Gibbs made contact and slipped up the race track in turn four while battling for the lead. Riding in third at the time, Kraus shot to the bottom of the race track and pulled down the straightaway as the leader for the first time.
“They were racing each other really hard so I had to stay on my toes waiting for them to make contact,” Kraus said. “That’s exactly what they did. They drifted up in three and four. I saw an opening and that’s when I took it. I might have drove through the grass a little bit but I got it done, so that’s really good.”
From there, Kraus left the rest of the field behind him before having to survive a restart with 10 laps to go. With Gibbs lining up to his inside, Kraus used the preferred outside groove to get the jump on the restart and pull away to score his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory.
“It was a really good car that BMR brought me here,” Kraus said on the FansChoice.TV broadcast. “We struggled a lot in practice to be honest with you, the practice sessions on Saturday and Sunday. I was a little worried going into it. We didn’t get to do our mock runs so we had to start deep in the field, but once the race started I knew right away that I had a good car underneath me. That was really good and at the end of it we ended up here in victory lane.”
A major question entering Monday’s race surrounded the fact that teams would only be allowed four tires for 175 laps of racing. The format forced drivers to follow a strict strategy that included conserving tires at the right time and being aggressive when necessary.
Kraus explained after the race the he relied heavily on his experienced spotter, NASCAR Cup Series spotter Freddie Kraft, to guide him to the front.
“It definitely helps when I have someone good on the radio like Freddie. He’s in my ear the whole race,” Kraus said. “You guys can listen, he’s in my ear every single lap telling me not to burn the right rear off this thing. That’s what we had to do to win this thing and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
With two competition cautions scheduled for the 175-lap race, Kraus and the BMR team entered the night with a strategy in mind. They stuck to that strategy during the race by pitting during the first competition caution on Lap 62 and staying out for track position during the second competition caution on Lap 125.
“We definitely had a plan right away to come in during that first break. Right away the car was really good, so that’s what we did,” Kraus stated. “Then we stayed out the second [competition caution.] I feel like track position was big here. It’s pretty tough to pass here but if you have a good turning car it’s easier than what it normally is.”
Ty Gibbs, the grandson of NASCAR Cup Series owner Joe Gibbs, finished second in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series East debut after leading briefly during the second half of the race.
“It was just a learning experience here,” Gibbs said. “We’ll go to Pensacola and use the same thing as here, probably save a little bit more. I wish I maybe could have saved a little more halfway through the race, the front tires. It just kind of took off and got super tight. It’s a hard one. This one will help me for Pensacola.”
Brandon McReynolds, Sam Mayer and Anthony Sergi completed the top five.
For on-demand coverage of Monday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season opener, visit Speed51.com’s Trackside Now coverage.
-Story by: Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / Melissa Strahley