Doug Pace: K&N Pro Series returns to Spokane County Raceway

NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series returns to Spokane County Raceway on Saturday for the Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150.

This marks the first time the series has been to the lightning-quick half-mile since 2013, with only a handful of current drivers having competed at SCR since NASCAR’s return to the region in 2011.

Getting its start in 1954, the roots of the K&N Pro Series are found on short tracks in its two divisions (East and West) where close-quarters racing develop drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Joey Lagano and Spokane native Chad Little on to stardom in the sport’s Cup Series.

A scheduling change for the series this year allows teams to compete in both divisions. The arrangement opens the door for drivers such as reigning West champion Todd Gilliland, who won the series event at Stateline Speedway in 2016, to chase two championships in one season.

Gilliland, a third-generation driver, is the son of Cup Series star and California native David Gilliland and the grandson of past K&N West champion Butch Gilliland. A high school student from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, the 16-year-old brings a three-race West series winning streak along with the series points lead into Saturday’s race.

Gilliland trails Harrison Burton by eight points in the chase for the East championship.

Driving for multitime K&N Pro Series championship car owner Bill McAnally, Gilliland is part of a powerful team that also includes 2015 titleholder Chris Eggelston and 16-year-old Wisconsin native Derek Kraus.

McAnally, Gilliland and Eggelston will be at the NAPA Auto Parts Freya Street store on Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a meet-and-greet session that also features displays of the racing equipment, tools of the industry and much more.

Many entered from region

The Northwest will be well-represented in this weekend’s NASCAR event as six regional drivers are scheduled to compete in the event. Four drivers from Washington join the Idaho duo of Stafford Smith and Andrew Tuttle.

Otis Orchard’s Nicole Behar, who comes into the weekend holding the fourth-place position in the championship standings, returns for another shot at picking up a hometown win. Behar holds the record as the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series event, second place at Irwindale (California) Speedway in 2015.

Also racing this weekend is Medical Lake’s Braeden Havens, who will be driving for Idaho’s Thompson Racing in a one-race deal. Thompson’s team launched Havens NASCAR career in 2012 when he finished third in the Rookie of the Year standings. Havens scored a NASCAR pole award at Stateline Speedway in the 2014 and has put together multiple top-five finishes on the K&N Pro Series since 2012.

Fans will be out in force to support Jefferson Pitts Racing of Naches, Washington. The team fields three cars, including Rookie of the Year points leader Will Rodgers; Garrett Archer, who calls Maple Valley, Washington, home; and, making his NASCAR debut at SCR, Naches native Owen Riddle.

Riddle brings plenty of confidence into his first start on the NASCAR series. The late-model star has plenty of top-five finishes and victories on the banked half-mile at SCR.

“I feel like Spokane was the best option for me to get in a K&N car for the first time,” Riddle said. “It’s a place I’m familiar with and had success at in the past. Jeff (Jefferson, who own Jefferson Pitts Racing with Jerry Pitts) and I have talked about this (running the K&N series) for a few years and the last few months those discussions became more serious.

“Both Jeff and Jason (Jefferson, Jeff’s younger brother, who will serve as Riddle’s crew chief) have been good friends of mine for a long time. To finally get the chance to work with them on something like this has been a lot of fun.”

While Riddle’s K&N Pro Series debut this weekend is so far a one-race program with Jefferson Pitts Racing, he is hoping to do more racing with the team in the future.

“If given the chance to run full time, that would be a great opportunity, but the chance (to complete a deal) hasn’t presented itself yet,” he said.