DES MOINES, Iowa – Kenzie Ruston stood out as the only woman on the podium when the NASCAR Next field was revealed last weekend at Iowa Speedway.
Ruston didn't make it there because she's a girl.
The 21-year-old Ruston has established herself as one of the brighter prospects in the sport. She is currently eighth in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East series standings, and last week NASCAR selected her as one of 13 young drivers to be highlighted through its Next promotional program.
"It's a validation of her talent and her ability, and even more than that, her potential," Turner Scott Motorsports co-owner Harry Scott said.
Ruston's goal her rookie season with Turner Scott Motorsports was to push for top-5 finishes by the end of the year. But she's already had three so far, each time eclipsing the previous record K&N finish for a woman (sixth place by Danica Patrick in 2010).
"I definitely didn't expect this this early. But it's definitely a plus. Coming into this year, I just really wanted to run for Rookie of the Year. Hopefully I can get that Rookie of the Year and maybe something more," Ruston said.
Ruston's quick rise hasn't surprised those who've watched her outperform expectations at every level.
Ruston, a native of El Reno, Okla., grew up as a self-described "tomboy" in a family full of dirt bike racers. Kenzie's father, Darren, wouldn't let her get on dirt bikes, instead signing her up to race Bandelero cars at Texas Motor Speedway.
It only took one race for Ruston to realize she wanted much more out of the sport than some weekend fun. Even though she blew the lead when she spun out on the final lap, the 13-year-old Ruston — who had already tried every other sport, including cheerleading — was hooked.
"I was such a competitive person that everything I wanted to do, I wanted to win," Ruston said. "My first race, I knew that it was something that I really wanted to accomplish."
By the time she was 16, Ruston had earned a spot in the Legends car series.
In 2009, Ruston won seven times and became the first woman to win the Legends Car Asphalt championship. She moved up to the Super Late Model Series in 2010, her first season running full-bodied stock cars, and was 12th in points. She also ran four events in the ARCA series, a feeder circuit for NASCAR, and became the first woman to lead laps and secure a top-10 finish in her debut.
Last season, Ruston finished second in the ARCA/CRA Super Series, becoming the first woman to win a race in that circuit.
Turner Scott, an emerging team with three cars in the Nationwide series and three more rides in the Trucks series, signed her to a development deal before the 2013 season.
Harry Scott said that Ruston has shown "really good car control," adding that she's also shown a knack for keeping her tires fresh — a critical skill in K&N races.
"Kenzie is very patient. She's very smooth, and she's also calm in the car," Scott said. "She's very deliberate in her driving."
Ruston has finished higher than her starting position four times in six races this season. It likely would have been five, but Ruston's right front tire blew out last weekend at Iowa, sending the No. 34 car into the wall and out of the race after just 48 laps.
Ruston said that while she's hopeful of landing a sponsor to run at least part-time in Trucks in 2014, another year running in the K&N series is a much more likely scenario.
Ruston's talent, along with her charismatic personality, may soon have some drawing inevitable comparisons to Patrick, who has helped mentor Ruston this season.
But while Ruston strongly believes that NASCAR could use more women in the sport, her only focus right now is on winning — just as it was the first time she set foot in a race car.
"I don't want it to be thought, 'She's good for a female racer.' I just want to be good as a race car driver. I don't want people saying, 'Man, she was the best female driver ever.' I don't want people to think that. I just want people to know that I'm not the driver I can be yet," Ruston said.
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