STRATFORD, Wis. – Derek Kraus is hoping a surge of early-season momentum will be the boost that propels him to a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship this year with Bill McAnally Racing.

Kraus, 16, took over the No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota this season that now-NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Todd Gilliland drove to the last two series titles, and in doing so immediately knew he had big shoes to fill.

“There is some pressure there, when you take over a car like the (No.) 16 that has so much history and so many championships … especially seeing what Todd did with it the last two years,” said Kraus. “We knew coming into the year that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I felt ready and I knew (team owner) Bill (McAnally) and this crew believed I could do it.”

Kraus repaid that faith almost instantly when the season kicked off on March 15, bumping Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick out of the lead at Kern County Raceway Park, fading to sixth and then rallying through the field in the final 35 laps to pass teammate Cole Rouse for the win.

It was Kraus’ second-career K&N West victory, second in a row at Kern County and arguably the most memorable finish of his young career.

Derek Kraus (16) chases Kevin Harvick (4) and Cole Rouse at Kern County Raceway Park. (NASCAR photo)

“The season-opener was definitely an exciting race and it had an exciting finish, that’s for sure,” Kraus laughed. “I drove into (turns) three and four) on that restart and Kevin and I were side-by-side … I didn’t really know we were three-wide, but my spotter called me three-wide, he backed off and I felt like I got pinched a little bit. From there, I got into his left rear tire, he got sideways, I got sideways and it was on from there.

“I basically saved it off of him; I was all over the place and as I washed up the track, I got into him more. Everyone has their opinion on what happened. Some have good opinions, other have bad opinions but that definitely wasn’t in the plan. I’m just glad I was able to come back and win it when everything shook out. It was a huge adrenaline rush when I was coming back through (traffic).”

Not only was the finish a rush for the Wisconsin teenager on the track, it was a rush when he got home and checked social media to soak in the emotions of the race as well.

“I saw on Twitter that it was ‘the shot heard round the world’ and I had to smile a little bit,” Kraus admitted. “I never expected it to get that much attention, that’s for sure.

“I got a lot of congratulations from people I never expected … I got some people who weren’t happy with me too, but you’ll have that in racing. It wasn’t intentional and we both kept going. It was hard racing between the both of us.”