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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kenzie Ruston had a record-setting rookie season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East last year.
She had to start over, however, when she moved to a new team in 2014. That hasn't slowed down the El Reno, Oklahoma, driver as she acclimated quickly to her new surroundings at Ben Kennedy Racing.
“She impressed me right from the get-go in the first race,” said crew chief Mike Fritts. “Her feedback and race mentality really surprised me. She doesn’t just go out there and race hard, but she’s smart about the car, too.”
Ruston ran her first year in the K&N Pro East for Turner Scott Motorsports. When Kennedy moved up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year, an opportunity opened for Ruston with the Daytona Beach-based team.
“It was a huge change from last year,” said Ruston. “Any time you go to a different team and a different crew chief it’s a learning curve for everybody. You have to learn each other and learn your communication. How you adapt to that tells you how your year is going to go.”
The 22-year-old seems to have adjusted well. In her most recent speedway race, the high-profile NASCAR K&N Pro Series combination race at Iowa Speedway, Ruston posted a runner-up finish. It was the highest finish for a female driver in series history, besting the third-place mark Ruston set twice already, most recently at Langley Speedway earlier this season.
Ruston has always been competitive.
As a child in Oklahoma, the El Reno native, ran track, was a cheerleader and played soccer, basketball and volleyball. It wasn’t until she started racing that she found the right fit.
“I loved sports and was always super competitive,” Ruston said. “I loved playing sports but then I fell in love with racing and it brought out another animal in me.”
Ruston began the year with a pair of top-10 finishes at New Smyrna Speedway and Daytona Beach International Speedway in Florida. Her next three events Bristol (Tennessee) Motor Speedway, Greenville (South Carolina) Pickens Speedway and Richmond (Virginia) International Raceway were not as positive. Ruston finished outside of the top 10 in all three races, including being involved in accidents at Bristol and Richmond.
Fritts believes that the team's overall improved communication is what has helped Ruston get back on track.
“We’ve gotten better throughout the year at communicating,” said Fritts. “We’re better at understanding how she wants her car set-up. It’s been a good communication progression all year.”
Ruston also cites her progression this year to better understanding her car and her crew chief. She credits her boyfriend and fellow driver Daniel Hemeric for helping be more honest with her team about what she needs every week.
“He’s definitely made me a better racer,” said Ruston of Hemeric’s influence. “He’s so car smart and any dumb question I have about the car, I know he’ll give me a truthful answer.
"He’s definitely made me better at me giving information and has made me better throughout my whole racing career. I feel like, because of him, I can better tell my crew chief about what the car is doing and we can get it better for the race.”
Kenzie Ruston is a favorite of fans wherever the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East runs. Getty Images for NASCAR
Like many drivers, Ruston grew up around racing.
Growing up, Ruston would go to Oklahoma City to watch her step-grandfather, Jerry Morrison, race dirt cars and knew instantly she loved the sport. Her father, Darren, raced dirt bikes in the Oklahoma City area, and while he wouldn’t let her race bikes, he did let her run laps on a short track at Texas Motor Speedway, a decision that set Ruston down the path towards a racing career.
“My dad would never let me on a dirt track,” said Ruston. “We were being race fans at Texas Motor Speedway and there was a short track out back so we paid $50 to run 20 laps in a school car. I got out of the car with a huge smile on my face as said, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do.’ ”
Ruston began competing in Bandoleros at age 14, finishing second in the Texas Motor Speedway standings in her rookie season. She followed that up by running the Bandolero Young Guns Spring Nationals division, finishing fourth in the national standings.
After competing in Legends cars at age 16, Ruston moved to North Carolina at 17 to be closer to the bigger race teams and to gain more seat time. Last year, she made her K&N Pro Series East debut with Mooresville’s Turner Scott Motorsports, finishing the year sixth in the standings, the highest for a female in the series. Ruston was also named to the NASCAR Next program, the industry initiative that highlights young talent throughout all NASCAR series.
While many believe that Ruston could one day be a regular in one of NASCAR’s three national series, she is focused on the present and winning in K&N.
“I feel like I’ve never wanted to move up the ranks too fast,” said Ruston. “I want to prove myself at every level. If I had to choose, I’d say the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is the next step for me, but I’m focused on running well here and getting a win for Ben Kennedy Racing.”
Getting to the next level means that Ruston will have to balance getting the best possible result every weekend with learning from her mistakes and gaining valuable seat time. Earlier this season at Five Flags Speedway, Ruston rallied from a lap down after suffering a flat tire to finish fourth. She cites moments like those as the keys to success going forward this season and beyond.
“I think it’s all about how you handle situations,” said Ruston. “When things are out of your control, you just have to take it. I feel like the best drivers out there kind of just go with the flow. I think adapting to change is important. You have to be really strong for when something knocks you down, you get up and fight back stronger.”
Kenzie Ruston has three top fives and seven top 10s in 14 races this season and is seventh in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship standings. Getty Images for NASCAR