By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Derek Kraus scored his best career finish in Sunday’s South Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Darlington Raceway, reducing the playoff cutoff gap on Todd Gilliland down to 10 points.
Kraus, who drove a throwback of Ron Hornaday’s NAPA scheme, appeared was going to have a modest 147-lap race, battling his former Bill McAnally Racing teammate for the seventh spot.
Up to that point, Kraus said his afternoon wasn’t great as track position was hard to come by up until the final stage when his McAnally-Hilgemann Racing squad made key adjustments that led to him being inside the top-10.
“We were struggling pretty bad. Mostly I felt like we didn’t have very good track position from the start and we were very tight,” said the 13th place starter. “We kind of switch track position at the start of the final stage and got up to 10th or so. Once we got good track position and cleaner air, our truck was definitely better.”
The Wisconsin racer’s afternoon would change on Lap 145 when Matt Crafton ran into Josh Reaume which sent him into David Ragan before spinning around on the backstretch. As a result of the incident, the race was sent into overtime and it led to several pit strategies.
Kraus’ crew chief Kevin Bellicourt opted to keep him out for track position while top contenders Sheldon Creed and Brett Moffitt pitted for fresh tires. Once it was all sorted out, Kraus was now restarting alongside race leader Ben Rhodes on the front row.
“Kevin knows what he’s doing. He’s really good at adjusting on my truck and making the right changes,” Kraus on Bellicourt’s decision. “He’s got the experience in the Playoffs and he’s definitely been in spots like this where we have to go in and run really well.”
When asked about the thought of going a different strategy compared to the guys he had to fight for a playoff spot, Kraus said the team’s mind were made up as Gilliland and Tyler Ankrum were behind him.
“They were behind us, so if they pitted and I didn’t, we wouldn’t have an idea because they were a few spots behind us,” said Kraus. “We had our game plan right away and we were going to stay out. It worked out good.”
When the green flag dropped for the last time, Kraus emulated Hornaday with a strong restart and with some help from Grant Enfinger, last year’s West champion was out in front and with an excellent shot of punching his ticket into the playoffs.
However, his time out front was short lived as the No. 19 NAPA Filters Toyota Tundra got sideways on the backstretch, giving Rhodes the opportunity he need to get by and ultimate snap his 48-race winless streak in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
“I feel like it definitely would have been harder for him to pass me. I got loose and kind of just gave it to him,” Kraus on the losing the lead. “I feel like if I would have been able to get a good run off of two and make no mistakes, it would have definitely been harder for him to pass me. I feel like his truck was probably a little bit better than mine, but with clean air, my truck definitely handled better.”
Kraus would hold off Austin Hill and Enfinger to get his best outing in the series and his second top-five of 2020. Gilliland crossed the line in seventh, still hanging onto the final playoff spot going into Thursday’s regular season finale at Richmond Raceway (8:00 p.m. ET on FS1).
Kraus said it’s ironic that the final playoff spot will likely boil down against his former West teammate from 2017.
“It’s definitely ironic,” said Kraus. “It’s definitely going to be a fun race next week. I’m really looking forward to it and it should be fun.”
For now, Kraus will be focusing on the next race and if there’s one track he’ll rely on, it’s his experience of running at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, California, a track he won an incredible four times.
“I’ve never been to Richmond before, but I can kind of base it off of Kern County,” said Kraus. “It kind of has that same d-shaped oval and grip wise it wears out like Darlington and Atlanta. I grew up racing on those kind of tracks where the tires fall off. You got to save be able to save your tires for the end of the race. I enjoy those kind of race tracks, so hopefully at Richmond we’ll have a good race and points day.”