LAS VEGAS — There may be something to the “Dirt Princess” nickname that applies to Hailie Deegan. After a Thursday night coronation at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s dustier facility, there’s easily more of a royal aura.
In a town known for its gambling and glitz, the 17-year-old Deegan came bankrolled with grit, surging from an eighth-place starting spot and converting a last-lap pass to score her second NASCAR K&N Pro Series victory in the season opener for the West division. The triumph touched off a celebration bathed in emotion, but caked in dust. It also helped quell any notion that last year’s breakthrough win may have been a one-off, and showed that the NASCAR Next driver’s prospects are brighter still.
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Deegan’s methodical charge to the front was aided by lap-down traffic that stymied impressive newcomer Jagger Jones, who led 31 laps but left a crucial opening as he navigated the final time around. Deegan’s thoughts during her second-half rally ranged from hitting her turn-in points to maintaining proper pace on the fickle surface, but they also included a prediction. “Watch this come down to the last lap again,” she recalled thinking. “And in the end, it did.”
“This was my kind of — what’s the word — rebound race,” said Deegan, who posted her first K&N win in 2018 with a final-lap nudge of then-teammate Cole Rouse. “Coming here, especially in the heat race since we didn’t do that great, I was like, ‘man, I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight,’ but I wasn’t going to go down second again. I was done getting second. I’ve got second a ton of times now, and it just is not fun knowing that there’s a little more you can do, a little better you can be, and I just wanted to be the best I could tonight and go out and show everyone if they counted us out in the heat race that we weren’t done.”
So what do NASCAR and Toyota Racing, which has groomed her development in stock cars, have in Deegan? There’s boundless energy, for one, on display in her charismatic post-race interviews, an exuberant burnout and her buoyant sprint up the Las Vegas dirt track’s stands, checkered flag in hand. There’s the obvious marketability and the nearly unique quality of being a woman in a male-dominated sport.
There’s also instant extreme-sports cred, thanks to her father Brian’s X-Games pedigree, which hasn’t skipped a generation. That’s also helped her with the effortless ability to slip the word “gnarly” into casual conversation. She can thank her family for that, too. But there is also an inherited determination, evident in Brian Deegan’s role in the post-race festivities. In between post-race photos, her famous father lobbed playful “told-you-so’s” toward his daughter about how her diligence and focus for the dirt-track opener had set her apart.
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“Hailie, it’s a foundation that her dad’s built, being raised with Brian,” says veteran Bill McAnally, Deegan’s car owner for her second K&N season. “I mean, he’s been a competitor all his life and all his kids have learned that it takes effort, it takes a lot of hard work to get it done, and they’re willing to pay the dues. She works hard — in the gym, on the race track. … Knowing she was going to come dirt racing, she’s been in anything she could get sideways for the last month or so. They work really hard, and I’d say it’s the effort that they put in. Brian’s done an amazing job building her foundation.”
Above all, the list of qualities in Deegan’s playbook includes short-track driving chops, a trait reinforced Thursday night in the Nevada dust. Post-race, an emboldened fan cried out from the bleachers, intimating that we’ll see her in Daytona once February rolls around again. Deegan heard it in Victory Lane and reacted with a laugh.
The chances of reaching stock-car racing’s national ranks and larger speedways may have grown brighter, but when pressed, Deegan — for once that night — was willing to ease off the throttle over those prospects.
“I think that it just honestly depends at the rate, if this year goes like this race over and over again, man I’d want to be at Daytona, yeah. But I think as of now, we have a lot to learn, a lot of little things to perfect like that heat race,” she says, mentioning a faulty set-up with her pedals that slowed her in the qualifying heats, “but other than that, I have a lot of stuff to learn and I think I want to learn that in the K&N Series before I move up.”