SMITHTON, Pa. — Photo and story by Race Chaser Online Associate Editor Kyle Magda —
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East’s return to the state of Pennsylvania was an eventful one in Saturday’s UPMC Health Plan 150 at Motordrome Speedway.
There were story lines galore throughout the weekend, as a familiar face took the pole for the inaugural event at the half-mile track. Points leader William Byron set the fastest time in qualifying at a lap of 18.048 (99.734 mph) and joined by teammate Scott Heckert in second to make it all an HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks front row. Ben Kennedy Racing driver Kaz Grala qualified .002 seconds behind Heckert and the top-three were only separated by .039 seconds, with fourth-place starter Dalton Sargeant in fourth, within a tenth of Byron.
After the five features before the K&N East race were complete, a hot-and-sticky day began to cool off before the stars and cars of K&N East took to the track for 150 laps of action.
Tires, Tires, Tires
Saturday night’s UPMC Health Plan 150 had no planned half-way break, so drivers had to conserve their tires in order to make it to the end on the worn-out surface. Byron and Sargeant ran a blistering pace early on in the event before fading to the back-half of the top-10 at the finish.
“We kind of played the game wrong there,” Byron said. “We wanted to run a decent pace and they were making us run harder than we wanted to. It obviously showed both of us where we didn’t end up getting the finishes we wanted because of that. We were definitely running really hard towards the beginning of the race, but it didn’t pay off.”
With the two drivers falling back towards the end of the race, another HScott driver was going forward, and in a hurry. Rico Abreu ran around the back half of the pack for most of the race before his No. 98 team cut him loose on the race’s final restart, as the Columbus winner charged all the way up to second to score his first top-five finish since Iowa two weeks ago. Second-place points driver Scott Heckert thought he saved enough for the end, but was passed by the 98 within the final 30 laps.
“We were trying to fall back and probably run fifth to seventh and conserve, but we got stuck a little bit and ended up back in 11th,” fourth-place finisher Heckert said. “From there, we knew we had to save. Our goal was to be at least half-a-second to a second off the leader’s pace, that way we knew we were conserving the rear tires big time.”
Teammate J.J. Haley finished fifth to make it three HSMJM cars in the top-five.
Ruston, Rohrbaugh Pick Up Season-Best Finishes
Saving tires was the name of the game on Saturday and it paid off for Rev Racing driver Kenzie Ruston. She reported on the radio that she did all she could to save throughout the event, and when the tires starting to fall of other cars, Ruston made her way inside the top-10. The El Reno, Oklahoma driver made it up as high and sixth before setting there for her best finish on the 2015 season. Rev Racing teammate Jay Beasley didn’t compete in the UPMC Health Plan 150 due to physical issues, but another former team driver filled in for the Nevada native. Sergio Pena stepped into the No. 42 Toyota in his second series start of the season and finished in the same position he started in with a 10th. Problems plagued Pena early with a flat right-rear tire, but fought back to score the top-10 finish.
Former Super Cup Stock Cars Series driver Codie Rohrbaugh is no stranger to the half-mile Motordrome Speedway in Southwestern Pennsylvania, as he finished runner-up in SCSCS race there in 2013. An early spin in Sautrday’s race sent the West Virginia native to the back, but slowly crept his way up through the field when the tires began to wear out. Rohrbaugh passed Dalton Sargeant within the final 30 laps to crack into the top-10 for his series-best showing of ninth in the No. 7 Grant County Mulch Chevrolet. The career-best showing comes one week after car owner and grandfather Larry Berg won the SCSCS race at Ohio’s Midvale Speedway.
Bassett Racing Skips Week Before to Prep For Motordrome
Two regular series competitors didn’t appear on the entry list for the August 7 Bully Hill Vineyards 125 at Watkins Glen International. The Bassett brothers, Ronnie Jr. and Dillon, took the week off to prepare for Saturday night’s event at Motordrome and the team didn’t have a road course car to compete at the 2.45-mile track in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It was also the second race that crew chief Ron Otto was on the pit box for the 18-year-old Dillon Bassett.
“We had a crew chief switch at Iowa,” the younger Bassett said. “To come out here with a win is absolutely unbelievable. We just really needed to re-group and get our stuff back’ together since we’ve been struggling so much, but I think that little break paid off for us and we were definitely ready when we showed up and that’s what matters.
Otto served as crew chief for Austin Hill earlier in 2015 and the duo won the K&N East season opener at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.
Saturday night’s UPMC Health Plan 150 saw the caution wave five times for 34 laps, including two red flags to repair the asphalt on the front stretch. Five lead changes throughout the event is the most since the series visited Columbus Motor Speedway back on July 4, which had a season-high nine.
Next up for K&N East is the third-annual Biscuitville 125 at the 2.25-mile Virginia International Raceway on Saturday, August 29.