BRISTOL — Even John King II considered himself a longshot going into last Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Driving the No. 7 Red Horse Racing Toyota, the Kingsport driver shocked the racing world by scoring a victory in the NextEra Energy Resources 250. It was easily the biggest win by a Northeast Tennessee driver in over two decades, as King joined Johnson City racers, Paul Lewis and Brad Teague, as the only drivers from the Tri-Cities ever to win a NASCAR national touring series race.
“That was the last thing in our minds, being in contention for a win,” King said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “We went into the weekend, simply wanting to be there at the end, being able to push the truck back in the trailer without cutting it apart. That’s what we were able to do.”
Actually, the 23-year-old driver was able to do more, a whole lot more.
He emerged as a winner on one of the sport’s most fabled tracks despite having limited knowledge of restrictor-plate racing. Prior to the race, most of his drafting experience came during a 20-minute stretch with teammates, Timothy Peters and Todd Bodine.
“I was uncertain going into Daytona because it was so much different than anything I had done before,” he said. “I had never drafted and that was the biggest race track I had been on by a mile. It was a good feeling after practice on Friday.
“Timothy and Todd drafted with me and we ended up in the top 15 on the speed chart. The race was kind of baptism by fire, but it worked out well for us. I dropped back to the back at the start of the race and tried to miss a couple of the big wrecks. I stayed out of trouble and just picked my way through the field.”
King, who started his racing career in the Crate Late Model division at Volunteer Speedway, has an experience much different than most. With Bill Elliott a close family friend, King spent one season living at the former NASCAR champion’s house and working with his racing operation. It allowed King to test drive a variety of cars.
He said that unique experience as well as taking advantage of any learning opportunity, like working on the family farm in Scott County, Va., helped prepare him for racing’s big stage.
“You get experience on anything you drive,” he said. “You get it on the road, driving a tractor on a farm or hauling a load of hay. You learn a little bit of something on everything you drive, and there is no better teacher than experience.
“That’s why we started on dirt, moved to asphalt and tried to get into a little of everything. I ran Legends cars, did some road racing out west. It all goes into it, and you always pull something from your past.”
However, King said none of it would have been possible without the help of his Red Horse Racing teammates. Peters was King’s drafting partner in the closing laps of the race when he powered past Bodine’s truck for the win.
It was easily King’s best finish in eight Truck Seies races, topping a previous best of 15th in his series debut at Bristol in 2010. The outcome was such a surprise that King didn’t realize a big wreck had occured behind him.
“I knew the caution was out, but I didn’t know how extensive it was,” he said. “When I stopped on the apron at the end of pit road, I whipped around and I saw wheels, tires, hoods, spindles laying all over the race track. I thought, ‘It looks like a bomb just went off.’
“I pulled on to the entry of pit road, and I didn’t even know where victory lane was. I was absolutely speechless. It is such a huge deal. So many guys race their entire careers and never make to victory lane at Daytona.”
It was a far cry from his first ever win on the dirt track at Wythe (Va.) Raceway or his last win prior to Daytona at secluded Lonesome Pine Raceway, near Coeburn, Va.
Following the Daytona victory, King made appearances on a number of racing-related shows, as well as John King USA on CNN. The host of the news show caught wind of his namesake’s run at Daytona by seeing his name was trending on Twitter.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said King, the race car driver. “I’ve been on CNN and SPEED Channel a couple of times. It’s been non-stop call-ins, but pretty special to be a part of it.”
With the truck series not racing again until March 31, King will enjoy at least one month as the series’ points leader. While his current standing does bring the word championship into the conversation, King said that’s not the main goal for this season.
“Looking at the year, we need to finish races,” he said. “We’re looking at Rookie of the Year, and maybe running for a championship. There is more pressure, a lot more eyes on us now, but we’re focused on logging laps and finishing races.”