Tuesday, March 20, 2018

K&N WEST: Iwuji takes first damage DNF of career

PHOTO: @Jesse_Iwuji
by William Soquet
LASTCAR.info Guest Contributor

Jesse Iwuji picked up the fifth last-place finish of his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West career in Thursday’s Bakersfield 175 presented by NAPA Auto Parts after his #36 Perfect Hydration / Patriot Motorsports Group Chevrolet crashed out after completing 78 laps.

The finish was the first for Iwuji since the 2016 NAPA / Toyota 150, when he finished three laps down under power, 24 races ago.

Iwuji is making a mark larger than his profile in the NASCAR community. The son of African immigrants, Iwuji grew up in Texas. He starred in football and track in high school, and attended the United States Naval Academy because it was simply the best option to further his football career. While in Maryland, he discovered drag racing and founded the Red Line Group after he returned from deployment, Iwuji founded The Red List Group, a drag racing group centered in Southern California, where he is currently stationed as a Naval Reservist.

Iwuji’s stock car career started at Irwindale Speedway in 2014. He ran the Whelen All-American Series weekly tour the following year and also made his K&N West debut, an ill-fated effort at Evergreen Speedway resulting in a DNS. The following year, Iwuji and his Patriot Motorsports Group team (PMG) made a full-season effort, yielding a best finish of tenth at Orange County Speedway and a tenth place finish in points.

Before the start of the 2017 season, Iwuji met former All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman at a California fashion show. Merriman came on as owner of Iwuji’s #36 entry and also supplied financial backing with his apparel company Lights Out. Midway through the year, Perfect Hydration came on as Iwuji’s first longstanding sponsor, a partnership that has continued into this year. PMG has expanded, too, sometimes bringing three or four cars to the track for drivers like Will Rodgers, John Wood, Stafford Smith, and Dan Phillippi.

In 2018, Iwuji and the PMG corps took three cars to Daytona in February for the ARCA Racing Series test. Iwuji and Belgian driver Jerry de Weerdt wound up running the race, with the former falling out with a punctured oil cooler. Iwuji has another six ARCA races planned in 2018, focusing on tracks a mile and a half in length and larger. Another full K&N West slate is also on tap.

Twenty-three cars comprised the initial entry list, including five from PMG. Absent were mainstays on last year’s tour Todd Gilliland, Nicole Behar and Julia Landauer. While Gilliland is now competing for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, while no plans have been announced for Landauer or Behar.

Qualifying last on Thursday was Salvatore Iovino, one of PMG’s five drivers. Originally scheduled to run the full 2018 Truck schedule with D.J. Copp and his Copp Motorsports team, Iovino revealed on his driver comments section on Racing-Reference.info that family problems halted his West effort midway through 2017. A consequence of that, according to the driver, was that he was not able to gain Truck approval for the coming year. Expect a full-time effort in the K&N Pro Series East as well as a few West and ARCA races mixed in for 2018.

Iovino’s lap was a 20.886, three-tenths behind the next-slowest driver, PMG development driver Andrew Tuttle, and more than two and a half seconds off of polesitter Kevin Harvick’s lap. Unfortunately, a lack of live communication hindered tracking the last-place battle as to make it impossible. Luckily, due to Twitter, we can draw a clearer picture. According to Iwuji’s Twitter account, @Jesse_Iwuji, an attempted pass gone wrong was to blame for the crash. A question to Iwuji tweeted by the author revealed that Iwuji was trying to make it around Takuma Koga’s #11 machine on the inside when contact with Koga resulted in further damage to the left front of the Iwuji machine, leaving it done for the night.

Longtime competitor Todd Souza, who gave Ryan Reed a K&N West test all the way back in 2013, fell victim of a single-car spin after 89 laps to finish 22nd. Kody Vanderwal, a returning PMG driver, retired after losing a motor fitting during the second race break. He had showed promise, running in the top ten all night. Koga returned to the track to finish forty-three laps down, and Tuttle rounded out the Bottom Five, finishing twenty laps down.

23) #36-Jesse Iwuji / 78 laps / crash
22) #13-Todd Souza / 89 laps / crash
21) #43-Kody Vanderwal / 128 laps / overheating
20) #11-Takuma Koga / 132 laps / running
19) #39-Andrew Tuttle / 155 laps / running

1st) Patriot Motorsports Group (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)

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