By Dustin Albino

When Derek Kraus took over the reins of the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Xfinity Series car — the team‘s All-Star car — at Richmond Raceway, he knew it was on a streak of top 10s. But he also never turned a lap in an Xfinity Series car. 

Kraus, who had spent the previous three seasons in the Craftsman Truck Series as the full-time driver of the No. 19 McAnally-Hilgemann Racing ride, found out at the Snowball Derby that he wouldn‘t be returning to the team in 2023. The team opted to go with Christian Eckes, who was bounced from his ride at ThorSport Racing. 

“At the time, [that deal] rubbed me the wrong way, but I told [Kraus] it is what it is,” Freddie Kraft, who has worked with Kraus since he was 12 years old, told “They got a rude awakening when people will tell you what you want to hear sometimes and it‘s not always the truth. They put a lot of stock into some stuff with what people over there were telling him and they got blindsided by that news.”

With the Derby being run just two months before Speedweeks at Daytona, it put Kraus in a bind. There were opportunities to run full time in lesser equipment, but Kraus leaned on Kraft, who knows the inner workings of the sport. Kraft‘s advice was to jump in a competitive ride, even if it was for a partial schedule. 

Kraus ran the season opening truck race at Daytona for Young‘s Motorsports, knowing it was a one-off start. He was scored 18th when rain hit the superspeedway, ending the event 21 laps early. 

Prior to the 2023 season, Kaulig touted its No. 10 entry as an all-star ride. It would field cars for elite talent, such as the winningest driver in series history, Kyle Busch. Kaulig‘s Cup driver AJ Allmendinger was set to run the road courses, while Justin Haley would be driving on the superspeedways. Austin Dillon competed at Auto Club Speedway and Kyle Larson won his first race at Darlington Raceway last weekend. 

But with Cup drivers being excluded from competing in the four Dash 4 Cash races, it was the perfect opportunity for Kraus to find some funding and hop in a solid car. 

“They are a great team to work with and so eye opening with how a race team operates of this caliber,” Kraus said. “It‘s so much different. A lot of fun and way better.”

Immediately, Kraus excelled in his series debut at Richmond. With practice getting canceled, he took the green flag blind as to how the car would run. And as his Kaulig teammate Chandler Smith dominated the race en route to his first career win, Kraus had a respectable showing and finished 10th; 14th spots better than his teammate Daniel Hemric. 

Kraus backed up his Richmond performance at Martinsville Speedway and bettered it by two positions, placing eighth. 

Relatively speaking, Kraus believes the Xfinity car handles closely to a late model — something he‘s oh so familiar with. That allowed him to adapt on the fly quickly. 

“It is similar to a super late model,” Kraus said. “That‘s what I grew up racing with the low downforce and not a lot of grip. Richmond and Martinsville fit my driving style with how I grew up racing. 

“It‘s also similar to an ARCA car. More horsepower, but it‘s very similar. “

The finishes of Kraus‘ two most recent races aren‘t indicative of how the No. 10 car ran. He was in the midst of the lead pack at Talladega Superspeedway, but was involved in a late wreck. And at Dover, he was running 11th when he sped on pit road, dropping to 20th. 

Through his first four career starts, which included just one practice session at Martinsville, Kraus had an average result of 16.3. 

“To do what he did is pretty hard,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, said. “None of those guys are slouches; they are really good racecar drivers that race in the Xfinity Series. For him to outrun some of the ones he outran was cool.”

Kraft believes that Kraus‘ skill set lends itself to the Xfinity style of racing. That‘s why he believes there was immediate success. 

“If you’re a young kid that wants to show off how talented of a racecar driver you are, you can go to the Xfinity Series,” Kraft said. “The Xfinity Series has the best racing, I think, in our sport right now. It‘s a car that you have to drive and it‘s not just locked down into the racetrack. It‘s not strictly aero based. You can get on a guy’s bumper and manipulate the air around him and move him around without even touching him. I think Derek is capitalizing on that right now.”

Rice hopes Kraus will return to Kaulig in the near future, knowing it will ultimately come down to funding. But the driver hoped he proved he can get it done under the right circumstances. 

“I have all the confidence in the world in myself that I can do it and I know that I can do it, but the right opportunity has got to be there,” Kraus said. “It‘s all about having the right opportunity and being in the right equipment.”

For over a year, Kraus has been trying to rebuild his reputation in the garage after a multitude of incidents during the 2021 truck season. With how he was racing, he wasn‘t getting any favors in return. 

Even though Kraft believes Kraus learned plenty and got better during his three-year truck stint, he remembers watching the inaugural race at Knoxville Raceway from afar, thinking the No. 19 truck was the best one in the field. But with Kraus repeatedly moving drivers out of the way, the field finally had enough and took him out of contention for the win. 

“I think he‘s recovered from that a little bit, but the first thing you have to do in this sport is earn people‘s respect,” Kraft noted. “If you‘re out there making mistakes and running people over, that‘s one thing. It‘s races like [Knoxville] where we‘re never going to make the playoffs, we‘re never going to win races because these guys don‘t respect you right now. They are going to make your life miserable every chance they get and you‘re never going to be in a position to capitalize on anything if every position you have to earn takes 10 laps to get it because this guy is pissed off that you ran into him in the past.”

Fast forward nearly two full calendar years and Kraft believes Kraus is a more respectful driver and gets what the car will give him whenever he‘s competing. The next step is getting back inside of a racecar on a weekly basis. 

“I think he‘s done a phenomenal job,” Kraft said of Kraus‘ four races with Kaulig. “I know the guys at Kaulig are really happy with him and I hope he gets some more opportunities there. He‘s following that mold of getting in good stuff and taking what opportunities come. He‘s running his late model and is doing well with that. It‘s just taking a year off and resetting and trying to get your name back on the map in good stuff.”

Away from the track, Kraus is staying busy by doing simulator work for Legacy Motor Club every Tuesday and Thursday. Whenever he‘s not there, he‘s trying to run a super late model as frequently as possible.

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