LOUDON, N.H. – It is easily the most overlooked event of every New Hampshire Motor Speedway race weekend.
It doesn't have the glitz of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the star power of the Nationwide Series or the cache of the Whelen Modified Tour. But the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East served notice yet again on Friday evening here at New Hampshire that the division is as entertaining as any competing during the two NASCAR weekends every year.
Max Gresham's victory in the New England 125 had a little bit of everything.
It had three-wide racing inside the Top-10. It had pit strategy, involving both fuel and tires. It had teams playing the track position gamble. It had rookies in their series debut, and it had powerhouse teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing. It boasted some of the most promising young talent in the sport and veterans of New England's short-track ranks.
In short, it was everything the race fan in us wants to see.
It was less than half a decade ago when NASCAR was being unfairly criticized for having "stripped the life" from a series once based in Maine and New Hampshire. Car counts had drizzled down to the low- to mid-20s at many short-track events on the schedule. But the revamping and refocusing of the series as a true development series – akin to minor league baseball or hockey – has, in fact, given it an identity some still want to claim it lacks.
This weekend, only the Sprint Cup Series had more entries for its race, and none of the other three series competing at the track sent more drivers home after qualifying.
Where the starting field had been a composite of newcomers, old hats and Sprint Cup development drivers – the Top-10 at the checkered flag enjoyed the same flavor. Cup team drivers finished 1-2 with Gresham and Brett Moffitt, independent rookie Brandon Gdovic finished fourth for his first career Top-5 finish and long-time Pennsylvania Saturday-nighter Benny Gordon was fifth.
Daniel Suarez of Mexico finished a career-best seventh, three-time New Hampshire winner Eddie MacDonald – a two-time Oxford 250 champion – was ninth and second-generation Chase Elliott was 10th.
It's hard to imagine that even the most casual race fan couldn't find one of those drivers to relate to.
Here in New England, the challenge has been to get race fans to appreciate the great racing in the K&N Pro Series while embracing the fact that this isn't your father's Busch North Series. Even as the Top-10 drivers in series history were honored in the infield a few hours before the green flag, the new series was setting up shop in the Turn 1 garage area at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Turns out, that Generation Next put on one of the best races in any division in recent memory at the track.
Good for them.