DOVER, Del. — Kyle Benjamin stormed into Dover Int’l Speedway on Friday and did everything in his power to keep rival Justin Haley from locking up the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship, scoring maximum points by leading the most laps and winning the 125-lap finale race.
It just simply wasn’t quite enough.
Haley was the one variable that Benjamin couldn’t control and by finishing fourth at the ‘Monster Mile’, the 17-year-old Hoosier completed a dream season and secured his first series championship by 22 points over Benjamin in the end.
The Winimac, Indiana teenager scored two wins and 13 top fives in 14 races en route to the title, with a worst finish of ninth at Mobile (Ala.) Int’l Speedway in March.
“We brought speed everywhere we went this year,” Haley said. “This is a great series with competitive racing, which makes it amazing that we only finished outside the top five once. The crew was unbelievable in their preparation and making sure we unloaded fast at every race. … This championship has been a long time coming and I’m definitely fortunate and blessed to have run as strong as we did all year long. All the stress lifted when we crossed the start-finish line … and it’s an amazing feeling to have finally finished the deal.”
Haley’s average finish of 3.4 is a K&N East single-season record, and once he took the points lead after the series’ fifth race of the year at the VIR road course, he never relinquished it again.
However, though the eventual champion started on the pole after qualifying was washed out and led the first 42 laps uncontested, Benajmin passed him on lap 43 and paced the remainder of the distance uncontested.
Following the halfway break, a caution at lap 102 ended Collin Cabre’s hopes for a second-straight Dover win, after he blew a tire running second while chasing Benjamin and pounded the wall.
Benjamin was unfazed and jumped back out to a sizeable lead over Haley and Jesse Little’s torrid battle for the runner-up position, one which eventually saw Little’s Rette Jones Racing entry take command of the second spot.
A final yellow with six to go, brought out when Tyler Hughes lost a tire and slapped the turn three wall, pushed the event into a green-white-checkered finish and gave Little one final chance at Benjamin — but it wasn’t quite enough for the second-generation driver to take advantage and steal the top spot away.
Ultimately, Benjamin hung on for the victory as the race went one lap beyond its scheduled distance, beating out RJR teammates Little and Dominique van Wieringen as a multi-car crash erupted in the back of the field on the last circuit.
“It’s really cool to get the win at Dover,” the 19-year-old Easley, S.C. native said after the race. “It’s a race you always want to win at, especially considering it’s probably the coolest track on the K&N (East) schedule and all the top NASCAR teams are here watching.”
“The last restart was nerve-racking, because I didn’t know what they were planning to do behind me. I’ve had restarts at these places where I’ve gotten wrecked at the start-finish line and didn’t even get going, so that was in the back of my mind. Anything can happen, but today we were lucky enough and blessed to bring another one home.”
Benjamin’s run to second in the championship included three wins and utilized the same car for every one of the series’ 14 races.
“We had a great year,” Benjamin remarked in regards to his season. “It’s had its ups and downs. We had a lot of good races, but we had some bad finishes in some really good races for us that kept us far enough back to get the big trophy. I wouldn’t change any of it, though. We’ve had consistent cars and it showed all year.”
Behind Haley, Drive for Diversity class member and former NASCAR Mexico Series champion Ruben Garcia Jr. completed the top five in the finishing order, notching his best career series finish.
Harrison Burton, Tyler Dippel, Riley Herbst, Chase Dowling and Chad Finley were the balance of the top 10.
Haley’s championship is the fourth-straight K&N East title for HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, following in the footsteps of Dylan Kwasniewski (2013), Ben Rhodes (2014) and William Byron (2015).
He is also the eighth teenager to win the series title in the last eight years, joining 16-year-old Cayden Lapcevich as a NASCAR champion this year. Lapcevich locked up the NASCAR Pinty’s Series championship in Canada last weekend.
Dippel trailed Haley and Benjamin in the points tally, finishing third in the championship ahead of HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks teammate Hunter Baize. Noah Gragson ended the year fifth in points.
Haley, Benjamin and other top performers from the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will be honored on Saturday, Dec. 10 in Charlotte, N.C. for the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards celebration. The event will be held at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, inside the Charlotte Convention Center, for the seventh consecutive year.