Derek Kraus and Hailie Deegan have spent the last two seasons as friends, teammates and on-track antagonist with each other. It comes as no surprise that, with four races left in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West season, Deegan has emerged as the leading contender to thwart Kraus’ run at his first NASCAR championship.
Kraus, the recently-turned 18-year-old from Stratford, Wisconsin, has sat atop the West standings since he swept the twin features at Tucson Speedway back in May. Those pair of wins allowed him to take the lead away from Deegan, who won the season opener and led the points through the first two races.
Sunrise Ford Racing teammates Jagger Jones and Trevor Huddleston are still in the hunt, 33 and 34 points back of Kraus, respectively.
But it’s Deegan, who sits 29 points behind Kraus, who has moved back into the second position and has been one of her teammates biggest on-track rivals. At least one of them has finshed in the top five in all but one of the 10 races, and they’ve combined to win five times.
The two clashed in the final laps at Colorado National Speedway, as the 18-year-old from Temecula, California, drove on to her second win of the season and Kraus limped home with an eighth-place run. At the most recent event at Worldwide Technology Raceway, they made contact again late in the race.
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Kraus, who went on to finish second in the event, said didn’t mean to make contact with the No. 19 NAPA Power Premium Plus/Monster Energy Toyota. Deegan recovered to finish ninth and minimize the points damage on a night where both Jones (seventh) and Huddleston (18th) also lost ground to Kraus.
“I went in and got loose. I couldn’t do much about it,” Kraus told NASCAR.com. “Air is huge here. It’s so tough to pass. Drivers say it, but I don’t think the regular fan can really understand it. Air is just huge. You can pack on someone’s right side, but you don’t want to spin them out. We went into the corner, we were a little too close, I got loose and got into her a little bit.”
“I guess that’s racing, I think that’s a racing deal, I’m sure she thinks differently. I think differently too. You just gotta move on and try to stay away from her.”
Deegan was understandably frustrated post-race. She also was reassured by Bill McAnally Racing general manager Kevin Bellicourt over the radio after the spin that the contact was unintentional and Kraus “didn’t mean to do that.”
“At the end of the day, I was having a good run,” Deegan said. “Derek definitely—I get what happened in Colorado, and I know obviously stuff will come back, but we’re to the point now where we’re past that. He’s taken his little jabs at me at races. It comes, it goes, swings get thrown one way, get thrown the other, things that happen to you happen back and they keep bouncing back and forth.”
With four races remaining in the 2019 K&N West season, the championship is not out of reach for Deegan.
Especially going to Idaho’s Meridian Speedway next, the site of her first career win last year.
“We take the positives from this race,” said Deegan of Gateway. “Everybody saw our run. There wasn’t a person out there that didn’t see where we were running, and I think we made a good point. Obviously not the finish we wanted. We’ve just been struggling lately. We have good runs and the finish doesn’t pan out how we want it. We’ll just have to take the positives, leave the negatives and move towards this championship, even though it’s going to be really hard to get.”
Kraus understands the championship is his to lose.
But after finshing third and fourth in each of the last two seasons in the championship, he’s focused on the moment, knowing anything and everything can and will happen in racing.
“You always gotta stay on your toes,” said Kraus, who finished 15th last year at All American Speedway in Roseville, California, one of the four races remaining on the schedule. “Trevor had a rough day today, he blew his motor early, and then Hailie with the flat left rear. You can’t lose focus, you gotta keep your mind sharp, you gotta be there at the end of these races, you can’t finish 10th, 11th, 12th, you’ve gotta be there at the end and try to win as many as you can, too.”
The next K&N Pro Series West event will be the NAPA Auto Parts/Idaho 208 at Meridian on Saturday, September 28.