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PENSACOLA, Fla. – Ben Kennedy captured his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East win in storybook fashion.
The 21-year-old was fastest in practice, won the Coors Light Pole Award in the afternoon, and then went out and led wire-to-wire in the NAPA Auto Parts 150 Saturday evening as the series made its inaugural visit to Five Flags Speedway.
"It's so cool to come here to Pensacola and win," said Kennedy, a Daytona Beach, Fla., native and junior at the Unversity of Florida in Gainesville. "This is a track with so much prestige and this is phenomenal."
Fifteen-year-old series rookie Gray Gaulding had to settle for second, with John Van Doorn third. Points leader Brett Moffitt came home fourth, followed by Kenzie Ruston.
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Five Flags opened in 1953, the same season the track held its only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event as Herb Thomas edged Lee Petty in a matchup of NASCAR Hall of Famers. The bank half-mile also annually hosts the prestigious Late Model open race, The Snowball Derby. The weight of track's history was not lost on the great grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
As he pulled to a stop in Victory Lane, Kennedy asked NASCAR officials for a moment to compose himself before exiting the car in jubilation.
"It was just so much, waiting for it to sink in," said Kennedy. "I knew I won the race at that point, but I just couldn't accept it at that point. I was just taking it in and thinking about everything. To win a race like that and go out and dominate like that - lead every lap - I couldn't ask for anything better tonight."
Kennedy got his first NASCAR win last year in the Euro-Racecar Series in Tours, France. Saturday was his first NASCAR win in the U.S. and came in his 30th NASCAR K&N Pro Series East start. His previous best finish was third (twice).
Kennedy was one of five drivers in the field with previous experience at the Pensacola track. He had twice competed in Super Late Models at Five Flags.
He also became the first driver to lead every lap in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race since Cale Conley last year at Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway. Ironically, in that event, Kennedy scored his first pole award only to lose the lead to Conley before the first lap was complete.
There was no danger in that Saturday night as Kennedy quickly jumped out to a comfortable lead on each successive start and re-start.
His biggest test came when a single-car spin on Lap 136 erased his sizable advantage and gave Gaulding one more chance in the closing eight-lap shootout.
Kennedy, though, said he had been focusing more on his restarts lately and he showed off his improvements by quickly dispensing of his challengers.
"Those guys on the team have been really putting their heart and souls into the cars and it really showed here tonight," said Kennedy.
"At the end of the day, I really wanted to win that race real bad," said Gaulding. "I knew the only place we were going to beat him was off the restart. We could only hang with him about three or four laps and he starts pulling away. I gave it all I had. I was just burning the tires off the thing the last 15 laps."
Van Doorn was making his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East start. The 25-year-old Michigan driver stepped into the car of veteran series car owner Dave Davis. In addition to getting acclimated to a new style of racing, the biggest challenge for the midwest Late Model standout was just folding his 6-foot-3 frame into the cockpit.
"I don't even know what to say, this is so unexpected," said Van Doorn. "Seven days ago, I didn't even have this ride," said Van Doorn. "The biggest thing was just learning the car and learning what the feel is.
"In practice yesterday and today was just getting a feel for things. We made a bunch of changes in practice, even though we didn't need them, just to get a feel for things. ... Top three isn't bad for first time out. We'll take it, build on it and go from there."
Bryon Ortiz finished sixth, followed by Dylan Kwasniewski, Sergio Pena, Ryan Gifford and Brandon Gdovic.
Moffitt maintained a nine-point lead over Kwasniewski and Gaulding and 10 points over Ruston. Kennedy moved up to fifth in points.
The NAPA Auto Parts 150 will be televised on SPEED on May 2 at 3 p.m. ET.
The next event on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule is the Blue Ox 100 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on April 25.
LAP-BY-LAP RECAP | RESULTS | AUDIO: POST-RACE INTERVIEW WITH WINNER BEN KENNEDY | AUDIO: POST-RACE INTERVIEW WITH RUNNER-UP GRAY GAULDING | AUDIO: POST-RACE INTERVIEW WITH WINNER THIRD-PLACE JOHN VAN DOORN
Ben Kennedy leads the field to the green flag on the final restart in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East action at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. Getty Images for NASCAR