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With the inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach wrapped and the trophies heading to their respective destinations, some ample analysis is due for some of the event’s more notable NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prospects.
While one race doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate a career, it does provide us an opportunity to glance at some of the offerings these budding prospects of NASCAR’s regional and weekly series currently possess.
Cameron Hayley, K&N Pro Series — Turn 4 was the smoke monster of the inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach. Hayley, a sophomore in the series making his first start with Gene Price Motorsports, had no trouble taming the mythical beast.
Hayley cites study with new crew chief Jeff Jefferson as to why he was able to seamlessly get out of a tricky turn for 150 laps, plus overtime. He also placed heavy emphasis on tire conservation:
“We needed to know what was going to work and what wasn’t, and also needed to keep in the back of our mind tire management because a lot of the guys were coming out of that corner sideways and had nowhere to go,” said Hayley. “So we decided that smooth is fast, get in hard, get around the corner, point it straight and go. We worked hard on that, so we wouldn’t burn tires off.”
The approach worked and resulted in the best day of the 16-year-old driver’s career. He was a replacement-level producer in 2012, but if he pieces together runs over the course of the K&N West regular season the way he did Tuesday night, improvement in his production will come naturally. So might wins, if his equipment remains as speedy.
Hayley and fellow GPM driver Greg Pursley, who led 127 laps, paced the field in practice. The speed of the two teams wasn’t necessarily a surprise — GPM has housed the last two K&N West champions in Pursley and Dylan Kwasniewski — but the immediacy in which they became the class of the field was a shock, though not totally a coincidence. Hayley confirmed that GPM rented out Las Vegas Motor Speedway for two days and used the estimated Battle track specifications to create a mockup practice track in its parking lot. He said it helped “a little bit,” but it very clearly paid some dividends.
C.E. Falk, Whelen All-American Series — After what happened in Monday night’s feature, I expected one thing and got another. Of course, I’m referring to his aggressive pace and 61 laps led that didn’t weather his car one iota. To what did you think I was referring?
A three-time champion at Langley Speedway, the Virginia Beach native has cracked the code on equipment conservation while maintaining a pretty thunderous race pace. The trick is, his dominance — those 61 laps — didn’t come all that early. His move to the front came on lap 88 which would have been too early for a lesser driver. Not for Falk. His performance was absolutely indicative of everything of which he’s capable.
If it takes mile-high emotions following the conclusion of the race to land this kid — he’s still only 25 — a ride, a one-shot or something in one of the national NASCAR series, then fine. It’s a travesty he isn’t competing on Saturday afternoons anyway, but after his performance Monday, I’m no longer alone in that sentiment.
Ben Rhodes, Whelen All-American Series — In what sufficed as his breakout race, the soon-to-be 16 year old finished second after starting from the pole and leading 87 laps. That part is pretty easy to do when the machine being driven is a Lee McCall-built Late Model Stock that Tony Stewart drove to victory in last year’s Denny Hamlin Showdown. It was his restarts, though, that looked ripped from a veteran’s playbook. I asked Rhodes about this element of his racing repertoire following the race:
“I was just doing a lot of different things on the restarts, trying to mix things up. I was able to get a lot of good jumps. That all comes from my experience in Legend Cars. I had a lot of races in Legends at a bunch of short tracks — all sequential shift — so I was able to work on that and learn what to do on double-file restarts. I don’t know if it’s going to be good in these things …”
Oh, it translates, Ben. If anything, his sheer restarting ability made me forget that he pushed his car’s pace far too hard, too early, essentially cooking his brakes and wearing out his tires. The good news is that he’ll learn equipment conservation with more track time. Those restarts, though? That’s a nice little weapon for the kid out of Louisville.
Kyle Larson, all three events — His K&N race finish (10th) wasn’t exactly spiffy, but his showings on Monday in the Whelen All-American race and early Tuesday in the Whelen Modified event were impressive spectacles considering the majority of his time spent in those specific cars came in a testing atmosphere. It sounds cliché, but his ability to step into any car and have immediate success is otherworldly. His 2013 Battle at the Beach performance will be remembered for Monday’s mishap, but outside of that, it was a reminder of how naturally gifted this 20-year-old kid truly is.
Derek Thorn, K&N Pro Series — Heartbreaking. Thorn drove an intelligent race, allowing Greg Pursley to have all the room he could handle on restarts during the first half of the race, setting himself and his pleasantly conserved racecar up for late charge. He was then spun, which forced him to navigate through traffic at like Frogger on expert mode, picking off positions at will. With a chance to win, the accident in Turn 2 on the final lap threw up a too high a hurdle, ending perhaps the most brilliant showing of the entire Battle. His sixth-place finish isn’t worthy of being deemed a consolation prize, but it does serve as an exclamation point following a 2012 season in which he ranked fourth in driver production.
Bryan Ortiz, K&N Pro Series — Ortiz got spun early in Tuesday’s proceedings, gained his lap back and outlasted a hornet’s nest of activity consisting of the recently spun Greg Pursley and Derek Thorn and their spinner, Cale Conley. Ortiz was intelligent enough to back out when situations, particularly that one, became excessively dicey, and put himself in position to score the best finish of the race for the Rev Racing stable. The driver who led the division in finishes inside the top half of fields (a 92.86 percent clip) in 2012 proved once again that he’ll find his way to the front by piecing together runs and outlasting his more antsy adversaries.
Michael Self, K&N Pro Series — Over the last 12 months, Self has blossomed into an above-serviceable K&N West racer whose perceived prospect stock is now on the rise. He led 27 laps in Tuesday’s feature and was in the first-place position before last-lap shenanigans relegated him to an eighth-place finish. That finish doesn’t define him, though; his full-race showing tacks onto a five-race run of that includes two wins and a runner-up finish, dating back to 2012.
Corey LaJoie, K&N Pro Series — We only caught a glimpse of what LaJoie offers as a racecar driver; after starting 12th, he had claimed third before being spun, which more or less removed him from contention. His conservation was on display and, much like how his last two seasons in K&N East panned out, it was headed for a good result.
Nate Monteith, Whelen All-American Series — The 10-race winner in 2012 had an intelligent run going until his engine expired on lap 106. Conserving equipment and running a comfortable, but still speedy pace he hovered around fifth in the running order. His night was cut short before we were able to see whether he’d conserved enough to be a race-win contender.
Lee Pulliam, Whelen All-American Series — I’m not sure whether it was the unfamiliar car or the SPEED spotlight, but last year’s NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champ looked a bit lost on the 0.4-mile oval, salvaging a seventh-place finish. For a more proper evaluation of his talent, it’s more logical to refer to his broader sample size: he scored 22 victories across 36 starts last season.
Cale Conley, K&N Pro Series — Speedy? Yes. Agressive? More so. The West Virginian got hungry during Tuesday’s feature, spinning out Greg Pursley and Corey LaJoie over the course of the event. Forcing the issue is a habit that can be eradicated with time during a driver’s development. That hasn’t happened for him just yet and a race with $20,000 on the line might not be the time in which to expect that specific aspect of maturation to occur.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA. He will be a regular featured contributor to NASCARHomeTracks.com throughout the year.