A new, but familiar driver strapped in behind the wheel of the familiar blue No. 98 Super Late Model owned by Jake Carswell on Sunday at The Rattler 250 at South Alabama Speedway, the season-opener for the Southern Super Series. It wasn’t Daniel Hemric, who won the 2013 SSS championship in that car, although he was there lending a helping hand. Instead, it was Hemric’s fiancé, Kenzie Ruston in the driver’s seat for the first race of a full-season campaign with Carswell Motorsports.
Ruston and the Carswells plan to chase a Southern Super Series championship together this year. After a 16th-place finish, their first race together can be summed up as average, but still served as a good starting point for the rest of the 2016 season.
“We kind of knew coming into the weekend that this wasn’t going to be the best place for us, so we just took it like that,” Ruston told Speed51.com powered by JEGS after the race. “We just wanted to finish all the laps and salvage a finish. That’s what we did. It sucks that we got turned around there in the final laps and got the car a little torn up there. We just have to get it fixed for Nashville now, and Nashville is one of the good tracks for this car.”
“Our goal today was to log all the laps and get her some good experience in the car and work together,” said Carswell. “We know her well, but we need to work together that way. All in all, it was a good day. A top 15 was our goal and we were there all day until right at the end when (someone) wanted that last spot too bad and dumped us.”
Carswell attempted to get Hemric to race for his team again this year, but the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver thought that it was best if he put all of his focus on his Brad Keselowski Racing team and race for a championship at that level.
Ruston has been a fixture around the Carswell Motorsports pit for a long time, always helping the team out with anything and everything whenever Hemric was in the car. Her well-established relationship with the team made the decision to put her in the driver’s seat an easy one.
“We’ve got our whole team back together from when we won the championship with Daniel,” said Carswell. “We’ve got all those guys and Kenzie and Daniel. We all do it for fun. We’re already having a great time all hanging out together and racing hard.”
“I already feel like they’re family because Daniel has been running for them for the last three or four years,” Ruston said. “It’s funny one time last year when Ross (Kenseth) was running the car Jake came up to me at Winchester and he was like ‘Hey can you help me? I have no help!’ That was kind of funny, but I’m excited to be back with them.”
For Hemric, there’s no one he would rather see race that No. 98 car other than Ruston if it can’t be him.
“I have a special place in my heart for short track racing and Super Late Model racing as a whole,” Hemric said. “For Kenzie to be able to step in and fill that hole, I couldn’t ask for anybody else to be able to do it. I wish I could, but it’s crazy and it’s awesome how it’s all shook out.”
Ruston said the goal for this season is to win races and potentially the championship this year. If she accomplishes that goal, that would give Carswell two championships in four Southern Super Series Series, with two different drivers.
“We’re planning on running all the Southern Super Series races this year and that’s 12 races,” she said. “We just have to go all-in and try to win the championship. I think we have a good chance. Daniel won it in 2013. I think we’ll definitely have a fighting chance if we can run well week in and week out and have good finishes.”
But regardless of whether Ruston wins the championship, she’s just excited to be back racing, especially in a Super Late Model. She’s been a regular on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, but hasn’t done too much racing aside from that series the last couple of years. For that reason, Ruston said she’s just thankful to be getting this chance with the hopes of being able to make it worth the Carswell’s time.
“They don’t have to do this,” Ruston said. “They just love racing. Racing is their life. They haven’t raced in the last six months and they’re just excited to get back to the race track. To get a win for them would be awesome. They went out on a limb for something and that’s definitely the goal this year is to win races for them.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com/Bruce Nuttleman photo