Terry Renna / AP
Tuesday, March 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Dylan Kwasniewski outfitted himself with a fire suit and racing helmet in place of a cap and gown on the day he graduated from high school.
The 18-year-old Kwasniewski spent the first Saturday of last June in Newton, Iowa, 1,500 miles away from the local ceremony held for his Faith Lutheran classmates. Second thoughts zoomed through his head with as much speed as the stockcar he slid into at the Iowa Speedway for a regional NASCAR race.
“It was a time in your life where you really feel like you were missing out on a lot,” Kwasniewski reflected. “I got pretty emotional that day.”
Being absent from the once-in-a-lifetime event ended up as just another sacrifice in a string of several of them over the last five years for Kwasniewski. He knew difficult conflicts lay ahead ever since he was a freshman at Faith Lutheran.
That’s when Dylan Kwasniewski consulted with his mother, Jennifer Kwasniewski, and his late father, Randy Kwasniewski, to plot a path to the highest reaches of auto racing.
“We sat down and methodically said, ‘Here’s what we need to do. Here’s the goals we need to reach,’” he said. “Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to reach every single one of them so far.”
Kwasniewski’s success at every level — from amateur competitions at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s one-third mile Bullring, where he won nearly every race, to NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series, where he was the youngest driver to win both the East and West circuits — has delivered him to a situation he’s long waited for this weekend.
He will be among the starting field in Saturday’s Nationwide race, the Boyd Gaming 300, at the speedway. Fans and friends are surprised to learn Kwasniewski has never driven on the actual speedway as all his previous races were on the facility’s smaller course.
But he’s more than acquainted with the 1.5-mile tri-oval track after coming to practically every NASCAR race there over the past 10 years.
“I hated it,” Kwasniewski laughed. “Not really but I just hate watching races I’m not in. I get antsy and it makes me want to get out there and race. Last year, I knew I was getting close. I knew I’d be there soon.”
Not necessarily this soon, though. Securing a sponsor, Rockstar Energy Drink, late last year and a team, Turner Scott Motorsports, last month to enable a full season on the Nationwide circuit seems ethereal to Kwasniewski.
Adding to the dream-like qualities of his rise is the way his career on NASCAR’s second-highest series, behind the Sprint Cup, began. Kwasniewski won the pole at Daytona two weeks ago, becoming the youngest driver to ever do so.
“It was an extraordinary feeling,” Kwasniewski said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this and lead a bunch of laps.’ And then I just got absolutely plowed by on the outside and didn’t lead one lap. I was like, ‘That was short-lived.’”
Kwasniewski salvaged an eighth-place finish, which paid $65,395, despite what he considered numerous mistakes. He dropped back a little farther in his second start, to 13th for $19,706, last week in Phoenix.
But that still means he beat the majority of the 39-driver field, which is almost entirely more experienced than Kwasniewski. It takes supreme talent to show that much promise immediately, an idea that isn’t lost on NASCAR executives.
“I was in a meeting last week with NASCAR executives; Dylan’s name came up very prominently,” Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell said. “We’re very proud for a young man from Las Vegas to be featured so prominently in an effort by NASCAR to get younger competitors. I’m certain we’ll hear from Dylan for a long time. He’s going to have a lot of backing from NASCAR.”
NASCAR already produced a 10-episode documentary series on Kwasniewski entitled “Flat Out” last year. The auto-racing giant also tabbed him for its NASCAR Next team, a collection of the best prospects.
Kwasniewski feels groomed to act as ambassador for the sport. He said he got practice on a smaller level all through high school with his friends in Las Vegas.
“No one I hung out with at Faith Lutheran or in my peer group watched NASCAR,” Kwasniewski said. “I was the only one. They had no idea, no interest in it. People knew I raced cars but they didn’t understand the scope of it. Luckily, through me racing, I got them involved and excited about the sport.”
Most of those friends, according to Kwasniewski, will be in the stands to watch the Boyd Gaming 300. A strong finish in front of all of them would serve as a special moment.
It might help make up for the one he missed nine months ago.
“It was kind of sad, but in the long scope of things, I know it’s going to work out better for me and improve my career and life as a whole,” Kwasniewski said with a smile. “And we had a good finish that day — second. Even though I was ticked I couldn’t win, it helped me win my K&N championship, so I’m good.”