Las Vegas is Hailie Deegan’s Daytona 500.
The first race of the 2019 K&N Pro Series West season also happens to be the biggest, as the series’ 65th year of competition will begin on dirt in Sin City.
Deegan, the reigning Sunoco Rookie of the Year, has spent most of her life and motorsports career on dirt, specifically in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series. She’s at home slinging it around.
After finishing second in the Star Nursery 100 last season and entering 2019 as one of the championship favorites, kicking off her sophomore season with anything less than a win will be a failure.
“This weekend if I don’t win-Sheldon (Creed) was fast last time. Really fast. But since he’s not going to be there, I have to win now. Anything else I’m going to be disappointed with.”
In the down time between her first race (K&N East opener at New Smyrna) and Las Vegas, she’s been keeping busy … on the dirt, of course.
“I started out driving my off road truck,” she said of her week. “The next day I went and I was at my track at my house, the dirt circle track in my Razor practicing. The next day I went to Ventura (Raceway) in a sprint car, practiced in that and (Monday) I was in a go kart. Not tired at all. Definitely not sore at all,” she joked.
I?m hooked pic.twitter.com/lX0dErTlJo
— Hailie Deegan (@HailieDeegan) February 24, 2019
Clearly, the 17-year-old is anything but. And she knows what she’s doing behind the wheel of a race car, whether it be four or two, on dirt or asphalt. That confidence is at an all-time high heading into Thursday evening’s tilt.
Racing-Reference: Hailie Deegan Career Statistics
“You figure if I qualified on pole last year, I finished second, and the main guys that I was battling with around me aren’t going to be there, it’s pretty much Derek (Kraus) that I have to worry about,” she said.
That pole she referred to was a history making one, as she became the first female to earn a K&N Pro Series pole award in this race last season. Her running position throughout the 100-lapper was solidly inside the top five. This time around, her plan is no different: stay up front and out of the way.
“I think it’s watch out,” Deegan said of her strategy ahead of the season opener. “Run your own race, stay away from anyone that can cause a mishap to your race. I think it’s just being smart. That track is a really hard track, hard for even me. I can only imagine someone who hasn’t driven on dirt, let alone a K&N car there. I think there’s some probable causes that can end your race. Hopefully ours doesn’t get ended.”
Despite running well last season, the track surface proved difficult for all drivers. With the weather drastically different, Mother Nature helping out with precipitation and months of preparation in the rearview mirror, the track seems to be in grade A shape.
On top of that, Deegan thinks the accompaniment of the World of Outlaws sprint cars will effect how the K&N cars are able to work on the half-mile dirt track.
“The World of Outlaws stuff is going to be there the day of,” she said. “They’re going to be racing before us. I think in a perfect world, I would rather race before the sprint cars because there’ll be a lot more grip and moisture in the track. But I think by the time we get over to our race, which is at 9:30 p.m. at night after the sprint car race, I think the track is going to be totally shined off. It’s going to start getting rubber laid down on top of it. Last year, the track got so shined off but never got rubber on top of if. I think it’ll be better, but not to its max capabilities.”
Although a 16th-place result in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East opener at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway is not how the Temecula, California native wanted to start off her 2019 season.
“Coming into New Smyrna first of all, I wanted to come in there after putting in a lot of work this offseason, and I think it definitely showed,” she said. “We were on the top of the board in practice, we started on the pole and we led until my car broke. We did everything we could and I did everything I could in my capabilities to be there for the results. They just didn’t happen.”
Kevin Reed, Deegan’s crew chief, knows this race means more than any other. He has been working just as hard as she has off the track to make sure the No. 19 Bill McAnally Racing Toyota performs on it.
“I think this weekend, it’s not like all that work went away,” she said. “It’s still there. I’ve done a lot these last two weeks getting ready too. I think nobody going to be outworking me and Kevin. He works on my car so much, he puts so much effort into that we have to go out there and win. Believe me, it’s still going to be tough, because no matter what, there are going to be fast guys. I just want to get to the track already.”
The green flag for the Star Nursery 100 is scheduled to fly at 9:45 p.m. PT on Thursday, February 28, and fans who can’t get to the track can stream the race live on FansChoice.tv.