DOVER, Del. — A few nights before Saturday morning’s rain-delayed NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Crosley Brands 125 at Dover International Speedway, Tyler Ankrum researched past champions of the series on his computer. The list is lined with many who have gone on to accomplish bigger things: Ricky Craven, Joey Logano, Ryan Truex, Kyle Larson, Ben Rhodes, William Byron, Justin Haley.
Ankrum had officially secured the 2018 K&N Pro Series East championship at Loudon two weeks ago but had to wait until after the season finale Saturday at Dover to celebrate his newly-minted place in history. The 17-year-old finished 11th of 17 cars, the second-worst finish of the 14-race season, after a crew member accidentally put a right rear tire on the left rear on the last pit stop, but that didn’t hamper a thing.
“It’s huge,” Ankrum, driver of the No. 17 David Gilliland Racing Camry, said. “I was at home on the computer the other night looking at the other drivers who have won the championship in the K&N Series and a lot of them are at the Cup level, or the Trucks or XFINITY. To be on that list, it gives me confidence. Maybe my dream as a kid can turn into a reality.”
Ankrum finished the year with four wins, three of them coming at tracks he never saw before (Thompson, Loudon and Iowa). The fourth was at South Boston, Ankrum’s first-ever K&N Pro Series win. He also racked up nine top fives, 12 top 10s and topped Tyler Dippel by 84 points, Ruben Garcia Jr. by 85, Ronnie Bassett Jr. by 87 and Anthony Alfredo by 94.
Only two other drivers in the series (Garcia, Saturday’s winner; and Todd Gilliland) had two or more wins. Ankrum’s top five and top 10 total bested the next competitor by three in each category.
The San Bernardino, California native had never been in a K&N car prior to this season. To that point, he didn’t have much success in late models, having failed to reach double-digit wins in his career, he said. All Ankrum wanted to do was run in the top five.
“At the beginning of this year, I never dreamed of being the K&N champion,” Ankrum said. “We talked about it around the campfire, ‘Oh yeah, ha ha! Maybe we can win the championship.’ Now we’re here. We won the championship.”
Before the season, Ankrum applied to be apart of the 2018 NASCAR NEXT class, a select group of up-and-coming drivers projected to ascend to NASCAR’s highest level. He was denied and nine other drivers, including K&N Pro Series East competitors Ryan Vargas and Alfredo, were picked instead.
“I completely understood why,” Ankrum said. “I’m a kid who did not have a very big resume like some of the other kids growing up in the series. … I never had anything like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ [My resume was] mediocre.”
What can a K&N Pro Series East title do to his prospects?
“I think it’s one of those you things you see on a resume and underline,” said Ankrum, who has yet to graduate high school.
Ankrum knew if he wanted to bolster his resume, more exertion and toil was necessary. He’s admitted to putting school and a social life on the back-burner in order to maximize himself on the racetrack, through simulators, film sessions and guidance from mentors.
“It’s more than just spending hours on iRacing. It’s about going in-depth. It’s talking to people,” Ankrum said. “It’s watching footage. It’s more than just getting behind the wheel and driving the wheels off it. I like to compare it to golf. … I’m in a race car, you race against the race track. That’s the first thing you have to do. Then you race against other people, other golfers. We’ve done that this year.”
Of the 14 race weekends, two of them intertwine with the Cup Series schedule. The first was at Watkins Glen over the summer and the last came this weekend at Dover. Growing up in southern California, Ankrum’s favorite driver has always been seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Now, he’s roaming the same grounds as his racing idol and celebrated a championship at the place Johnson has won 11 times.
“It’s a really cool experience, racing on these Cup tracks. Seeing all these Cup drivers,” Ankrum said. “As a kid growing up in southern California, I always said I want to grow up and be like Jimmie Johnson.
“And [when] you see Jimmie Johnson walking around,” Ankrum added, his voice pitching higher, “you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Jimmie Johnson!’ And you’re voice goes that high, too, when you see Jimmie Johnson. It’s awesome. It’s a dream come true. And hopefully it leads to more success in the future.”