The early-season road has been bumpy for Kenzie Ruston, but the second-year NASCAR Next driver is primed for a stretch run.
The El Reno, Oklahoma driver started the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season with a pair of sixth-place runs at Florida tracks – New Smyrna Speedway and Daytona International Speedway – and returns to the Sunshine State for Friday’s Pensacola 150 at Five Flags Speedway.
“It definitely hasn’t been the start we looked for this year,” said the 22-year-old Ruston. “We hope to get some momentum here and finish really strong.”
The groundwork for that momentum may have been set with an eighth-place finish on May 31 at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her car owner, Ben Kennedy, was able to dodge all of the obstacles to win at The Stadium last season. While Ruston wasn’t as fortunate this time, the top-10 finish was her first since the Daytona race.
“It hasn’t been any one thing,” she said. “It’s been a lot of little things. We’ve had fast cars. I really think we could’ve won that Daytona race, but it just didn’t work out.”
Like Bowman Gray, Ruston will wheel the car that Kennedy drove to Victory Lane a season ago when the series made its inaugural trip to the fast half-mile Pensacola, Florida oval. That’s a two-sided coin according to Ruston.
“It adds a little bit of pressure, but it also gives the whole team a boost knowing that we’ve had success,” Ruston said.
Ruston took over the driving duties of the No. 96 Ben Kennedy Racing Chevrolet after Kennedy, a NASCAR Next alumnus, went to work in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Turner Scott Motorsports. The two went head-to-head in the K&N Pro Series East last year with Kennedy, also a 22-year-old, finishing fourth in the final points standings and Ruston sixth, which was the highest finish for a female driver in the series, now in its 28th season. She also has the best race finish for a female in series history with a third-place showing at South Carolina’s Greenville Pickens Speedway on April 6, 2013.
With a K&N Pro Series East race under her belt at Five Flags, Ruston will be one of about 10 drivers with that experience at the oval located just north of the Gulf Coast beaches. She also has competed in a handful of late model shows at the track, but that experience is negated by changes to the racing surface.
“You used to have to conserve a lot more, but since they ground the track it’s pretty much all out every lap,” she stated. “I struggled with that a little last year because it wasn’t what I was used to there.”
A racer at heart, Ruston enjoys the shorter tracks on the schedule with Five Flags among her favorites.
“I really like the Pensacola track a lot. I like the speed there and the banking,” she said. “Some of the bigger tracks we go to it’s all about the cars. I feel that (Five Flags) is more of a driver’s track and I like that. It’s a fantastic track to race.”
The Race: The Pensacola 150 will be the second NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event at Five Flags Speedway. It’s the eighth of 14 oval track events and 16 races, overall, on the 2014 schedule.
The Procedure: The starting field is 30 cars, including provisionals. The first 26 cars will qualify through two-lap time trials. The remaining four spots will be awarded through the provisional process. The race will be 150 laps (75 miles) and run in two segments with a halfway break at or near the conclusion of Lap 75.
The Track: Five Flags is a half-mile asphalt oval with 15 degrees of banking in the turns that are 55-feet wide and nine degrees in the straightaways at 48-feet wide. The facility opened in 1953, the same season the track held its only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. The name Five Flags comes from Pensacola’s nickname as ‘The City of Five Flags’ to represent the five national governments that have controlled the city at various times.
The Records: The one-lap series qualifying record at Five Flags was established in last season’s inaugural series event on April 13 by Ben Kennedy at 105.109 mph (17.125 seconds). The 150-lap race record also was set by Kennedy in that event at 75.779 mph (59 minutes, 23 seconds).
FIVE FLAGS RACE NOTES
Sunshine State Return: The 2014 K&N Pro Series East season got underway with a pair of Florida events at New Smyrna Speedway and on the short track at Daytona International Speedway. The series, since its inception in 1987, returns for just its fourth standalone event in the state. Last season’s inaugural Five Flags event was the first standalone points race in Florida.
New Territory: For the second straight race points leader Ben Rhodes enters without any series experience at the venue. On May 31, the Louisville, Kentucky driver led all but one lap of the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 to win in his first taste of competition at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rhodes, also the Sunoco Rookie of the Year points leader, will make his first series start at Five Flags in the Pensacola 150. More than a dozen drivers will be making their first start at the Florida oval in a K&N Pro Series machine.
Busy Weekend: Following the completion of the Pensacola 150, NASCAR Next’s Gray Gaulding will make his way to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Drivin’ For Linemen 200. It will be the third career start in the Camping World Truck Series outing for the 16-year-old out of Colonial Heights, Virginia.
Pulliam Returns: After a couple of races away, two-time and defending NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion will be back behind the wheel of a K&N Pro Series East car. He’ll drive the No. 51 Top Gun Motorsports entry for car owner Rusty Skewes. Pulliam has a pair of top-five finishes in five series starts this season.
Florida Home Tracks Update: At New Smyrna Speedway, David Rogers leads the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I standings with eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts followed by Spencer Davis and Kyle Benjamin through June 1. Davis ranks second nationally in the Division II standings followed by Brad May, who is seventh nationally.
LAST TIME OUT: NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 at Bowman Gray Stadium
Points leader Ben Rhodes started from the pole for the fourth time this season and went to Victory Lane a third time. Coupled with his Iowa win, both he and Daniel Suárez, who won two races to start the season, have logged consecutive victories this season.
• Rhodes is the only series competitor to complete all 984 laps this season and leads the series with 502 laps led.
• Ronnie Bassett Jr. recorded his fourth straight top-10 finish with a fifth-place showing at The Stadium.
• With a third-place finish Austin Hill scored his third top-five in his last six outings dating back to Daytona in February.
• Four drivers – Gray Gaulding, Brandon Jones, Brennan Newberry and Rhodes – completed a unique double at Bowman Gray. Each of them competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Delaware’s Dover International Speedway on Friday before traveling to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150.
NEXT TIME OUT: Visit Hampton 175 at Langley Speedway
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East makes its second of three visits to the Old Dominion State for the Visit Hampton 175 on Saturday, June 21 at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia. It will be the fourth visit to the .396-mile oval for the series. NASCAR Next alums Sergio Peña, Corey LaJoie and Dylan Kwasniewski have won the first three. Last season, Kwasniewski started from the outside pole position after qualifying was doused by a late afternoon rain shower and led a race-high 132 laps en route to the victory.