PENSACOLA, Fla. – The early-season road has been bumpy for Kenzie Ruston, but the second-year NASCAR Next driver is primed for a stretch run.
The El Reno, Okla., driver started the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season with a pair of sixth-place runs at Florida tracks – New Smyrna Speedway and Daytona Int’l Speedway – and returns to the Sunshine State for Friday’s Pensacola 150 at Five Flags Speedway.
“It definitely hasn’t been the start we looked for this year,” said the 22-year-old Ruston. “We hope to get some momentum here and finish really strong.”
The groundwork for that momentum may have been set with an eighth-place finish on May 31 at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her car owner, Ben Kennedy, was able to dodge all of the obstacles to win at The Stadium last season. While Ruston wasn’t as fortunate this time, the top-10 finish was her first since the Daytona race.
“It hasn’t been any one thing,” she said. “It’s been a lot of little things. We’ve had fast cars. I really think we could’ve won that Daytona race, but it just didn’t work out.”
Like Bowman Gray, Ruston will wheel the car that Kennedy drove to victory lane a season ago when the series made its inaugural trip to the fast half-mile Pensacola, Fla., oval. That’s a two-sided coin according to Ruston.
“It adds a little bit of pressure, but it also gives the whole team a boost knowing that we’ve had success,” Ruston said.
Ruston took over the driving duties of the No. 96 Ben Kennedy Racing Chevrolet after Kennedy, a NASCAR Next alumnus, went to work in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Turner Scott Motorsports. The two went head-to-head in the K&N Pro Series East last year with Kennedy, also a 22-year-old, finishing fourth in the final points standings and Ruston sixth, which was the highest finish for a female driver in the series, now in its 28th season. She also has the best race finish for a female in series history with a third-place showing at South Carolina’s Greenville Pickens Speedway on April 6, 2013.
With a K&N Pro Series East race under her belt at Five Flags, Ruston will be one of about 10 drivers with that experience at the oval located just north of the Gulf Coast beaches. She also has competed in a handful of late model shows at the track, but that experience is negated by changes to the racing surface.
“You used to have to conserve a lot more, but since they ground the track it’s pretty much all out every lap,” she stated. “I struggled with that a little last year because it wasn’t what I was used to there.”
A racer at heart, Ruston enjoys the shorter tracks on the schedule with Five Flags among her favorites.
“I really like the Pensacola track a lot. I like the speed there and the banking,” she said. “Some of the bigger tracks we go to it’s all about the cars. I feel that (Five Flags) is more of a driver’s track and I like that. It’s a fantastic track to race.”