Photo: Luis Torres/Motorsports Tribune

Will Rodgers Dethrones Cup Regulars in K&N West Race at Sonoma

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

SONOMA, California — Second a year ago, winner this time around for 23-year-old Will Rodgers, who beat Aric Almirola by 4.420 seconds to score his second NASCAR K&N Pro Series West win of the season in Saturday’s Carneros 200 at Sonoma Raceway.

On the final restart with 14 laps to go, the pole sitter made the pitch perfect move to get by Almirola in Turn 11, and dethroned the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars in the process.

“That pass really came down to the final restart, and I knew Daniel (Suarez) was on old tires and Aric was on new tires, but I knew Aric’s pace, and I knew we’d run him down and find his weak point, and passed him at Turn 11,” Rodgers told Motorsports Tribune about his race-winning pass. “We just had to maintain once we cleared him. Definitely great battle by those guys. They both brought great cars to go here, and they both drove their butts off, and gave me a run for my money. I’m happy to just be able to say ‘I finished in front of those guys.”

Almirola praised Rodgers’ performance as he had nothing to show for to outperform the rising star on the NASCAR tour.

“Will was just too strong,” said Almirola. “His car was really good. He was changing directions a lot better than I was, and got a little more Ford drive off of Turn 7 and Turn 11, and he just beat me.”

27 cars qualified for the race, but the No. 18 of Bill Kann failed to make the start due to engine problems, reducing the field to 26 once Rodgers led the field to the green flag.

Throughout the opening 20 laps, it was all Rodgers out in front, but there was all sorts of action that resulted early attrition.

The first accident of the afternoon took place on the second lap when Matt Levin’s No. 10 Port of Tucson Chevrolet crashed into the Turn 9 tire barriers. Levin got out of the car unharmed and was credited of finishing 26th.

A couple of laps later, Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman lost an engine, and had to put his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet behind the wall, being the only Cup regular failing to finish.

Before the first break, third-place starter Hailie Deegan faced stiff competition from the field, including her teammate Derek Kraus, who used his bumper to get by the 16-year-old for eighth.

Then on Lap 19, Hollis Thackeray’s No. 38 Butte Auto Parts Chevrolet stalled in Turn 2. Thackeray was able to re-fire the car, but also retired from the race, finishing 23rd. The caution served as the end of the opening segment with Rodgers leading William Byron, Suarez, Almirola and Ryan Partridge after 21 laps.

With one set of tires and trying to save as much fuel as possible, several drivers pitted during the break, including Rodgers. This put Almirola on top of the leaderboard whereas Rodgers restarted in seventh.

Rodgers bought his time on making his moves to regain the lead as he was in the middle of an incredible battle between Suarez and Jim Inglebright in Turns 3-4 for a top-five spot.

While the battle was going on, Almirola’s No. 41 DenBeste Water Solutions Ford was at a different zip code, stretching his lead lap-after-lap and had a 7.192 second lead over Jones, but that was quickly vanished after Carlos Vieira’s No. 51 51 Fifty Energy Drink Ford crashed in Turn 10, ending his afternoon in 22nd.

After the restart with 28 laps to go, Rodgers was waiting for the right moment to regain the lead, but he had to get by Suarez which he was successful. This led to a mesmerizing three-car duel between them and race leader Almirola.

With the second break inching closer, Suarez went for it and passed Almirola with 25 laps remaining. Two laps later, Travis Milburn’s No. 08 Cooks Collision Chevrolet went to a complete stop, ending the battle and the second segment.

After 41 laps, Suarez led Almirola, Rodgers, Jones and Byron heading into the final battle for the win. Old tires vs. new tires became the focal point of the 64-lap race as Almirola pitted for fresh tires whereas Suarez and Rodgers already made their stops during the first break.

Almirola said after the race conserving his tires was crucial into his pit strategy.

“We knew right from the get-go that we needed to be patient and save our tires,” said Almirola. “We thought tires would be a big enough advantage at the end of the race, so we elected to ride at the beginning of the race, and save our tires and gas.”

This put 2015 Sonoma winner David Mayhew up to second for the restart, where the intensity build up.

Right out of the gate, it was go time for Rodgers, who battled door-to-door with Suarez in Turns 1 and 2, looking to get by the Cup regulars. A few spots behind them, Deegan moved up from ninth to sixth just in time before a series of car failures unfolded, beginning with Todd Souza, who brought out the final caution of the afternoon.

Following Souza behind the wall were Trevor Huddleston and Inglebright.

Once the lengthy cleanup was finished, and the action resumed with 14 laps to go as Almirola continued to lead the race. A bold contact by Rodgers into Suarez propelled him to second in Turn 2. He now had his sight on Almirola and got by him at Turn 11, regaining the lead for good.

“We definitely had a better handling car there at the end compared to Aric,” said Rodgers. “He was struggling a little bit, a little loose I think. That’s where we really took advantage of him, and he had a bad run off of Turn 10, and just took advantage down at Turn 11. So that’s pretty much how we got by him.”

Behind Rodgers, it became even more chaotic after points leader Derek Thorn and Kody Vanderwall made contact in Turn 3. Both cars continued, but with six laps to go, Vanderwall became the final retiree at Sonoma as his engine expired and finished in 17th.

In the midst of all that was Deegan’s gutsy drive as she was creeping in on Jones for the seventh position, with the back of her No. 19 Mobil 1/NAPA Power Premium Plus Toyota smoking, and could’ve expired at any moment. Her brave run took a backseat as she went wide going into Turn 10, and wound up behind Jones in seventh.

Deegan’s teammate, Cole Rouse, wasn’t as fortunate after Partridge ran into the back of him in Turn 11, going into a full 360 and furiously resumed in the fight, and finished 12th.

Behind race winner Rodgers and runner-up Almirola, Byron, Suarez, and Partridge rounded out the top-5. For Partridge, he takes the points lead away from Thorn, and is now 6-for-6 in the top-5 category.

Jones, Deegan, Thorn, Cole Keatts and Kraus rounded out the top-10.

Rodgers’ victory is just the beginning as he’s on a hunt for the K&N Pro Series road course sweep, only needing to win the two road races on the East tour in New Jersey and Watkins Glen.

The K&N Pro Series West drivers will head back to ovals as they’ll shift their focus towards Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg, Oregon for the Clint Newell Toyota 150 on June 30.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a two-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.