November 9, 2013 — By Shon Sbarra, NASCAR — AVONDALE, Ariz. – Gray Gaulding won the Casino Arizona 50 on Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway, but Derek Thorn was the man of the night.
Thorn clinched his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship with a 15th-place finish which was enough to hold off a trio of contenders. Thorn carried a 16-point advantage over 2011 series champion Greg Pursley into the night with Cameron Hayley and Michael Self also in contention. He wound up winning the title by six points over Hayley, who finished third.
“We put together an awesome season for ourselves,” Thorn said of the Sunrise Ford Racing team of Bob Bruncati. “We weren’t always the fastest. We were a model of consistency. We always put together good, solid, strong runs – and to win a championship, that’s exactly what you’ve got to do.
“I’ve got to thank Bob Bruncati for giving me the opportunity to drive the No. 6 for two years,” said Thorn. “It’s been a blast racing together. That’s definitely a way to close out two years together. The crew chief, Bill Sedgwick, and all the guys on the team worked really, really hard to keep us tough and put us in this position to win the championship.”
The outcome of the championship wasn’t the only drama that played out in the closing laps of the race, however. Gaulding closed ground on the leader and made a last-lap pass to get by Cole Custer – who had dominated in leading from the drop of the green flag. Contact between the two led to Custer spinning in Turn 3 and Gaulding slipping by to win by a margin of more than three seconds.
It’s the first career victory for the 15-year-old NASCAR Next driver out of Colonial Heights, Va., who becomes the youngest race winner in K&N West history at 15 years, 8 months and 30 days. He eclipses the mark of 16 years and 2 months established by Dylan Kwasniewski in Aug. 2011.
“I got a decent restart and I just started reeling him in,” Gaulding said of his pursuit of Custer following a Lap 32 restart. “Lapped cars started helping me out a little bit and I guess he started mirror watching. He was starting to see that I was closing in. I knew in the back of my head that it was time to win this and it was my shot. Unfortunately, I just barely touched him, but at this track, that is all it takes and you are going around.”
Fellow NASCAR K&N Pro Series East competitor and 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Jesse Little crossed the line in second, followed by Hayley in third. David Mayhew was fourth, with Brandon McReynolds in fifth. Custer, who during qualifying earlier in the day had won the 21 Means 21 Pole Award by Coors Brewing Co., recovered to finish sixth. Kelly Admiraal, Brett Thompson, Self and Taylor Cuzick completed the top 10.
The race was red flagged on the initial start after several cars got tangled on the frontstretch causing a lengthy cleanup.
Pursley and Self finished third and fourth, respectively, in the final standings. Dylan Lupton, who had already clinched this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year title, finished the season fifth in points. With his 10th-place finish in Saturday’s race, Cuzick moved from eighth to sixth in the final standings. Daryl Harr, Carl Harr, Giles Thornton and John Wood round out the top 10 in points.
The Casino Arizona 50 is slated to air on FS2 on Nov. 17 at 11a.m. ET.
Thorn and NASCAR’s other 2013 touring champions will be honored at the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 14 at the Charlotte (N.C.) Convention Center in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: NASCAR via Getty Images
PHOTO CAPTION: Gray Gaulding, driver of the #02 Krispy Kreme Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Casino Arizona 50 at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)