Fans packed the seats at Kern County Raceway (CA) Thursday night to witness a 22-car field in the 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West opener. In the end, it was Derek Kraus taking home the checkered flag but his battles with NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick and teammate Cole Rouse gave the fans their money's worth.
After Harvick’s post-race interview following his win at Phoenix last weekend with comments about grassroots racing, many people focused on this race tonight. Harvick came out of the gates strong with his Jefferson-Pitts race team to win the pole award in his first trip to Kern County.
Early on in the race, Harvick showed his dominance, leading the first 65 laps and into the first competition caution. At times, Harvick had big leads but rookie driver Cole Rouse closed the gap multiple times. The fireworks of the race got kicked off after the second competition caution at lap 125. Right before the caution came out, Kraus was applying pressure on Harvick, for the lead, which put them side by side for the restart on lap 131.
Throughout the night Harvick had been perfect on restarts, but this time Kraus held hard to the inside position, both drivers drove deep into turn one and made contact in turn two. As they headed down the backstretch Rouse made a huge run down the backstretch making it three wide as they headed in to turn three. As all three drivers battled for the lead, Kraus and Harvick made contact in the apex of turn three and four, once again sliding them up into the top groove of turn four. Rouse took over the lead, followed by Derek Thorn and Ryan Partridge. Kraus would slip in to fourth position, while Harvick would fall all the way to eighth.
Harvick ended the night with a smile on his face, even if he didn’t win the race. It was a win for grassroots racing even after the incident with Kraus.
“I got hit in turn one and ran over in turn four. I lost eight or nine spots, after that I was just too tight and couldn’t come back from there,” the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion said. “If you look at the way the event went with the crowd with everybody that showed up to support the race track, the exposure the series got this week, the exposure that grassroots and short track racing got this week, I think we accomplished our goal.”
Kraus saw the battle a little differently than Harvick.
“Yeah, that situation is going to be talked about for awhile," Kraus said. "From my perspective, we were three wide, Cole was going for the lead, I didn’t have enough time to bring the car down the bottom and he(Harvick) kind of pinched me and I made contact with his door, that got me loose and sent up into him. My eyes it was a racing deal and maybe in his eyes it was different.”
Rouse would hold on to the lead, even with pressures from Derek Thorn until his teammate Krause moved up to second place. As the laps winded down, Rouse was navigating through lapped traffic, when he went high to get around a lapped car and the lapped car went high as well, pushing him up the track giving Kraus the inside lane for the lead with Thorn to follow him into second.
Rouse expressed his displeasure for some of the lapped cars throughout the race.
“Things were going well until the lapped car ran us into the marbles. All I got to say is lapped cars that are running ten seconds off the pace don’t deserve to be on the track,” Rouse said. “We had a really good car all race long, we rode behind Harvick for awhile and didn’t want to get in front of him, just wanted him to set the pace.”
Kraus would hold on to the lead and never look back, going on to win his second straight K&N Pro Series West race at Kern County, after winning the last race of the season at the track in November. Thorn finished up in second followed by Rouse, Harvick and Partridge to round out the top five.
Kraus, the 2017 K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year was happy to start off his 2018 season with a win.
“It’s really good to start out the season with a win, we went down to New Smyrna performed well there, come here and win back to back races. It shows that BMR brings really good cars to the track,” Kraus said. “Having the packed house was great tonight, you go down the front stretch during a pace lap and look up at the grandstands full is pretty cool to see.”
Although Thorn didn’t win in his return back to full-time racing in the K&N Pro Series West, he was happy with a second-place run.
“I feel good to finish second, after we struggled today and our team didn’t give up. We made change after change, weren’t happy with them, made some small tweaks before qualifying and I qualified probably the worst that I’ve ever done in the series," Thorn said. "We made few more tweaks and the car was good in race trim. We just rode out the race the first 120-130 laps and made it into the top five. Things went our way in the end and just happy that we can walk away with second-place finish.”
Race fans can relive Thursday night's race on-demand with Speed51.com's Trackside Now coverage by clicking here.
-Story by Jeremy Anders, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com