Mention motorsports in Colorado and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb or NHRA Mile High Nationals are usually first to come to mind. But high-speed, adrenalin-filled action in the Centennial State isn’t limited to just those events. On Saturday, NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West hold its annual race at Colorado National Speedway, a .375 mile oval in Dacono.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series, which includes the East and West, is the top step in NASCAR’s developmental ladder before drivers progress to its three national series. K&N Pro Series veterans have made a significant impact at the national level, including 1998 West champion Kevin Harvick who went on to win the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and the 2007 Daytona 500.
But don’t mistake developmental for boring. Short track racing is inherently fierce and this series is no different. There will be plenty of paint trading, bumping, banging and flared tempers throughout the 150 laps of the NAPA/Toyota 150.
Defending race winner Ryan Partridge goes into the weekend just four points behind 16-year-old rookie Todd Gilliland. Gilliland, who started his rookie campaign with back-to-back wins, will look to return to the winner’s circle after second- and fourth-place finishes in his last two outings.
Not to be counted out is Colorado’s finest Chris Eggleston, the defending K&N Pro Series West champion. The Erie resident, who is the only Colorado native to win a NASCAR touring series championship, will be making a return to his home track, where he won in 2014. That victory helped land him his full-time ride with Bill McAnally Racing.
“It’s really exciting to represent Colorado well and go out there and win a big championship like that,” said Eggleston. “It’s a Cinderella story that came about from a cold call to Bill McAnally in 2014. It took a lot of persuasion but he eventually brought a car for me to CNS to just let me cut some laps and we went out and won the race.”
Eggleston is the most recent winner in the series, capturing victory at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, CA, on May 21. He took the lead when race leader Ryan Partridge spun on the tight quarter-mile trying to avoid a lap-down car.
“That place is tough but also fun,” said Eggleston. “I think we had a better car than Ryan did but it’s really hard to pass. I kept the pressure on him, hoping to make him over drive it and then lapped traffic came into play. We grabbed our first win and hopefully we can carry that momentum into Colorado this weekend.”
But Eggleston, who won his first track championship in 2006 at CNS, doesn’t feel like he has a leg up on the competition because of his countless laps on the gritty bullring.
“Colorado is weird because of the weather we have here and the way the ground shifts,” explained Eggleston. “The track gets more and more bumpy every year. Every time they flatten it out, new bumps show up. The characteristics change so much it’s not like we have a home track advantage.”
The track may not give him an advantage but his Rocky Mountain fan base does.
“The fans in Colorado are awesome,” said Eggleston. “They are very loyal to local racers and it’s great to race in front of them. While we have a great turnout at all our races, no one packs it out like Colorado.”
The 27-year-old sits third in points, just nine behind his teammate Gilliland.
Noah Gragson is fourth in points and looks to enter the championship hunt this weekend. Gragson, who finished eighth in the race last year, is the only driver to compete full-time in both the East and West Series.
“Colorado National is a normal, grassroots race track that isn’t much different from other local race tracks other than it is bumpy,” said Gragson. “Really bumpy. Unbelievably bumpy. Last year, it took me a while to understand how to drive around the bumps and to get the car to work over them.”
The track is located at an altitude of 5030 ft. and competing at these heights can cause issues for the drivers, as Gragson found out last year.
“I came to Colorado a few days before the race last year to test my Super Late Model and I ended up getting really sick,” said Gragson. “I’m sure that was from the altitude.”
The 17-year-old is part of the 2016–17 NASCAR Next Class. The initiative showcases NASCAR’s promising drivers, drawing attention from media, fans, stakeholders and sponsors to foster their growth within the sport.
“It’s been great for opening doors into the world of NASCAR for me,” said Gragson. “It has helped me out tremendously. Being with this group of girls and guys, there are 11 of us, is extremely humbling and a huge opportunity.”
Other West Series drivers in the 2016-17 class are Gilliland and Julia Landauer, who sits fifth in the series standings and was on season 26 of Survivor. Alumni of NASCAR Next include NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
The action on Saturday starts with qualifying at 5:30 p.m. A driver autograph session is scheduled for 7:15 followed by the race at 8:30. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see NASCAR’s future stars in your own backyard.