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There was something different about Dylan Kwasniewski this year, something those around him recognized almost immediately.
The bright, young, 15-year-old racer who had blistered off test laps at The Bullring At Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the winter of 2010 – months before his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut – had been replaced by a slightly older, slightly more mature, infinitely more determined race car driver by the time the start of the 2012 season came at Phoenix International Raceway nearly a year and a half later.
“He's got a natural ability, there's no question about that,” team owner Gene Price said. “Last year, he was more of a kid. This year, he was a completely different kid – more mature, way more focused. He was more determined, and we saw that right off the bat. The kid can drive anything, I have no doubt about that, but he was more serious about it.”
Kwasniewski's series debut came in 2011, and he won a pair of races in his first season. But he also finished outside the Top-10 on four different occasions, a product of racing as hard as he could as often as he could.
Kwasniewski's new approach in 2012 – three wins, 12 Top-5s and all 15 of his finishes in the Top-10 – earned him his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship. And with it, he became the youngest champion in the history of the series.
“To get this championship was great. With my age and the tracks I had to run at before, I never had a chance to run for championships anywhere,” said Kwasniewski, of Las Vegas, Nev.. “This was our first try. We won a lot of races before, but I had to go into a season with a little different driving style. If it meant finishing second versus trying to win and maybe wrecking if I wanted to win the championship, then that was what I was going to do.”
That wasn't always an easy transition for Kwasniewski, but having a veteran teammate in Greg Pursley did help. Pursley won the 2011 series title with Gene Price Motorsports.
“I think seeing my teammate win the championship the year before helped me understand better how to do it,” Kwasniewski said. “Having Greg as a teammate has definitely helped my career. He's there with that insight every single weekend to give me tips and motivation.
“It's ironic that the one who taught me to get there was the one I was battling for the championship at the end.”
Seeing Pursley's championship run in 2011, as well as tasting some early success on his own, really whetted Kwasniewski's appetite.
The team knew it could be fast and win races – and neither Kwasniewski nor crew chief Jeff Jefferson saw any reason why it couldn't a championship.
“I think after last year when we'd won a couple of races, we knew we could do it,” Jefferson said. “That was our motivation. We thought we could have a chance to run for the championship and win it. We had numerous conversations, even when we were down by 14 points going into the last two races, that we were still capable of doing this.”
Championship mettle was on display in the penultimate race of the season at All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif., in October. Kwasniewski qualified on the pole for the race, but he suffered a flat tire a few laps into the event. The crew changed the tire and got him back out at the rear of the field, and Kwasniewski drove all the way back to the front.
But the story wasn't over there. Kwasniewski got spun while working his way toward the leaders, and restarted at the back of the pack once again. And just as he'd done before, he battled all the way back – and won the Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150.
“That was one of the best races I've ever had,” Kwasniewski said. “I've never been so excited to win that race. I've won races before, but the way we didn't give up was the biggest thing. The whole time, I just kept thinking that I had to get back to the front to stay in championship contention.”
Kwasniewski is moving to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2013, but he expects that the same lessons he learned in the West series this year will pay off there. He has no reason to believe that they won't.
“Hopefully, we can go do it again next year,” Kwasniewski said. “To win in both the East and West, it shows something about our program and how good we are. There's a lot of good competition over there.
“It was a little difficult at first to change the way I approached races. I had to be patient and be content with finishing second if that's what it meant. I knew that if I took those chances that I'd taken in the past, it might not have worked out, so it was a little bit difficult. I knew I could do it, and winning the championship was important to me. I needed to prove that you can be young and be from the West Coast and still win championships at this level.”
Kwasniewiski and the whole Gene Price Motorsports team will be presented with the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship trophies on Saturday, Dec. 8 as part of the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards ceremony in the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte (N.C) Convention Center inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The awards ceremony is slated to be streamed live online in three languages – English French and Spanish – at www.nascarhometracks.com.
Dylan Kwasniewski celebrates his series championship following the season finale at Phoenix International Raceway. Getty Images