NASCAR Cup Series
Short Track Spotter Making a Difference with William Byron
Mar 25, 2022
Make the Cup Series spotters stand by 30
Make the Oxford 250 starting lineup ✓
Make the Snowflake 100 ?
There was a point that Derek Kneeland the teenager believed he could be giving up his dream of racing at the highest level, but he persevered and found a different way there while also checking off the personal bucket list anyway.
A native of Windham, Maine, Kneeland spent his formative years progressing from karts to four cylinders and eventually the equivalent to Limited Late Models -- but the second-generation local racer just couldn’t stomach spending his parent’s money without some kind of long-term plan.
"We didn’t have a family business or anything that could pay for tires, fuel and everything we needed to get to the track," Kneeland said. "So, I decided to pull the plug. I wasn't going to run my parents dry and I was done racing by 17."
Or so he thought.
Kneeland wasn’t done with racing altogether and spent several years spotting for his friend Corey Williams across New England and eventually moved to North Carolina to work for Warren Hamilton’s vinyl shop -- whatever it took to stay in the game.
"I knew that I wanted to be in racing," Kneeland said. "My dad raced in the 70s and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do."
Williams followed Kneeland to North Carolina to work with Andy Santerre Motorsports, before himself landing at Hendrick Motorsports, which in a roundabout way led to Kneeland meeting Brian Scott and spotting for him in the ARCA Racing Series at Pocono in 2008. It was a one-off opportunity that ultimately changed the direction of his entire life.
"Things went really well that day," Kneeland said. "Brian asked me to do it again the next week at Nashville, at the Superspeedway, and they kept me around the rest of the year."
The Scotts ultimately purchase Xpress Motorsports in 2009 and retained Kneeland to work with Brian in the NASCAR Truck Series. Eventually, Kneeland was paired with Kyle Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup Series and currently works with Tyler Reddick at Richard Childress Racing.
"I’ve been fortunate enough to work with really good drivers and I’m having a blast," Kneeland said. "I wanted to be a Cup Series spotter by time I was 30 and I got there at 27."
Accomplishing one goal so early has also allowed Kneeland to circle back to those childhood racing dreams. He’s become a sporadic fixture in the New England Pro Late Model scene on Cup Series off-weekends in the Pro All Stars Series.
He made his tour debut in 2010 with Buggy Pletcher and finally accomplished a boyhood dream of racing in the Oxford 250 in 2013 with Gary Crooks and Clay Rogers. Easily the most challenging short track race in the discipline to qualify into, Kneeland made a second Oxford 250 last summer between three other DNQs.
He finished 15th in the 2013 race and 25th in 2021.
Kneeland has scheduled an ambitious shake-up to his personal campaign this year with planned attempts in the Money in the Bank at Berlin Raceway on June 8, the Granite State Pro Stock Series event at Lee Speedway in July 15 and the Snowflake 100 at Five Flags Speedway in December.
The race at Lee is notable because it's on the Cup Series weekend at New Hampshire and will come during an event in which Reddick and Corey Lajoie are also entered.
Kneeland has raced Cup drivers before, of course, infamously getting spun by Brad Keselowski out of a transfer spot in an Oxford 250 heat race in 2010. Keselowski made the main event as a provisional with Kneeland still three years away from his debut in the feature.
"That one was a kick below," Kneeland said.
Being able to race alongside the driver he’s spotted to Xfinity Series championships will be memorable, but his Late Model is also a vehicle to accomplish those dreams of racing the best drivers in North America.
The car, which is a Distance Race Products build, is run out of the same shop as Kneeland’s cousin, Rusty Poland.
Someday Kneeland would like to see his car go full-time and chase a championship with a driver they believe in. He hopes to have a second chassis for himself that he can take out whenever his spotting duties allows.
"It sounds corny, but I want to give back to the sport," Kneeland said. "Right now, Rusty and I own each other’s cars and he's a huge help under the hood and I try to help with sponsorship. I'd love to have Rusty race for me full-time. I'd love to get a built motor next to our crate engine and chase some of those races.
"There’s so much I would like to do, but it just takes time and doing things the right way."
That’s why December at the Snowflake 100 is going to be such a huge test for his No. 90 operation. Kneeland has raced against the likes of Bubba Pollard at the 3/8-mile bullring but it’s a different game on the southern half-mile.
In fact, Kneeland just hopes to make the 36-car lineup.
"Hickory is the only place where we time trial," Kneeland said. "We heat race up north. At the Oxford 250, you could draw a ‘33,’ and that doesn't sound too bad until you find yourself starting 11th out of 11 in your heat race and makes for a very long day.
"So, for me, going to Pensacola, everything comes down to two laps. The 100-lap race, it is whatever it is, but for us it's about just making the show. We're not a little team that could kind of story, but we are underdogs there and I hope we're able to make the show. We'd be very proud to accomplish that."
And then there's the ongoing Cup Series season, one in which Kneeland and Reddick realistically could have won both Phoenix and Bristol Dirt. The RCR No. 8 is consistently knocking on the door late in most every race this spring.
Kneeland's been here before.
"The way I look at it, it's like when I had Larson," Kneeland said. "We were knocking on the door every week it seemed like and things kept happening, but we were there. Bristol was a kick down under too. I look at it like, it is what is, and it's not our time until it is.
"All you can control is what you do to put yourself in position to have a chance and we're doing that. I think history shows that once you break through, they're going to come in bunches."
You can add that to the checklist, too.