Much has been made about the youth movement in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series’ East and West divisions. Series that once featured grizzled veterans duking it out week to week now are predominantly filled with teenagers.
Old-timers hate it. Eventually, the future of the sport will look back and love it.
Four of the top-five finishers in Saturday’s Casino Arizona 125 at Phoenix International Raceway (AZ) were teenagers, led by 17-year-old Ryan Blaney, who captured his first-ever NASCAR K&N Pro Series victory in the West division’s season finale after making two previous starts in K&N East this season. Blaney took the lead from the older – by one year - Alex Bowman on lap 104 and never looked back.
“I thought we were pretty good rolling off the truck,” said Blaney. “We qualified very well (fourth), better than I thought we were going to qualify. Right at the start of the race we were tight, and it just got worse and worse that first segment. Then we dropped back to 11th before (the lap-66 competition caution) and then we made just some great changes to bring us up and help us turn a whole bunch through the center. That put us over the edge to beat Alex and Chase there at the end.
“It was a great night. It didn’t start off looking so well, but it ended up good.”
Second-place Bowman had an interesting night of his own in Phoenix. After winning two ARCA Racing Series events with Venturini Motorsports this season, the Tucson, Arizona native teamed back up with the Venturini team for their first-ever K&N West event together. After competing mostly with the X Team Racing outfit in K&N East this season, Bowman put on a show for the hometown crowd in his second K&N West start of the year, dicing it up with Blaney down the stretch and 2011 K&N West Champion Greg Purlsey earlier in the 125-lap race.
The Bowman/Pursley battle was epic. Pursley, who had clinched the title even before the Phoenix race, was going for his third-straight K&N West victory in Phoenix. It started off well, as Pursley earned his sixth pole of the season and third career at the newly-configured one-mile track. The night continued strong for Pursley, as he dominated the early portions of the race and battled with Bowman on several early restarts.
The close racing between the two came to a head on lap 81, when Bowman drove to the inside of Pursley for the lead. They made door-to-door contact in turn four, which sent Pursley into the outside wall and out of the race.
“We got up there to race for the lead and I think the 25 (Bowman) got in there a little deep and pushed up and got loose and got into us. I hated to go out like that. I thought we had a car to win, but stuff happens and I can’t complain about the season.”
The championship for Pursley was a stark contrast to the youth movement at Phoenix this night. Pursley, at age 43, celebrated a championship for the old guard on a night where the future of the sport were on display.
“The young kids that are coming in (to the series) are very fast and they need the experience out there and the seat time,” said Pursley. “They are going to make mistakes. That’s the learning curve, so sometimes guys like us have to pay for it. Unfortunately, I did tonight. The kids are going to be good. We have a great crop of kids coming up and it’s really going to make this series special.”
Bowman continued on after his duel with Pursley, leading 22 laps overall and swapping the lead with Blaney several times in the closing stages of the race to finish second.
“I definitely think, especially in the K&N Series, there’s a lot of young talent,” said Bowman. “It was a blast racing with Chase (Elliott) and Ryan (Blaney) tonight. They’ve proven themselves in the Late Model divisions and it’s cool to see Ryan get his first win. He’s a good kid. There’s not very many drivers out there in other series that are as talented as the guys I get to race against every week here.”
For 15-year-old Chase Elliott, the third-place finish wasn’t just further proof that the young guns are here to stay in the K&N Series, but he’ll be an even bigger factor in the 2012 season than he was this year.
“I thought it was pretty close to a dang win,” said Elliott. “For us to come out here, first race at this track, the first time out in the West Series, I thought it was fantastic. The biggest thing I look forward to from tonight is just next year. We have a lot of good things going on back at the shop in Dawsonville (Georgia), so I’m really looking forward to next year. This was a heck of a way to end the season. Obviously, two spots better would’ve made us feel even better, but we’ll take it and move on.”
Three-time K&N Pro Series West Champion Eric Holmes was the first veteran driver in the final running order, finishing fourth, while 23-year-old Derek Thorn was fifth.
Speed51.com will have more from Phoenix later in the week.