Sense of rejuvenation for Ronnie Bassett Jr., team with his first K&N win

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NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — Ronnie Bassett Jr. sat in contemplation last May, having rushed to witness first-hand the devastating fire that tore through his family-owned team’s race shop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

While thankfully no one was injured, the material loss was heavy, with little to salvage in the way of cars, tools, equipment and the team’s hauler. Sifting through cinders in the days after the blaze, Bassett said he wondered what would come next for him and his brother, Dillon, a pair of next-generation racers.

“We were sitting there scratching our heads,” Bassett says. “We didn’t know whether we were going to be able to race again the rest of that season or what.”

Sunday night, nearly nine months after their loss, came victory. The 21-year-old Bassett emerged from a frantic second half of the season-opening Jet Tools 150 to score his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory at New Smyrna Speedway. The win also soothed the heartbreak of last year’s K&N opener, where an official scoring check after the checkered flag kept Bassett from Victory Lane.

Bassett’s convincing victory, which included a late-race stretch of running 1-2 with his brother, belies the adversity that his family has faced. Working with insurance to rebuild their own shop has been a gradual process, and the family racing operation is now spread over three buildings in their hometown — a small warehouse for primary cars, a shed for parts and another space serving as a makeshift fabrication shop.

“We’re just trying to make it happen,” said Ronnie Bassett Sr., who enjoyed a successful career in the Sportsman division at Bowman Gray Stadium. “They don’t have much to work out of. It’s a tight spot, I can tell you that.”

What has helped has been a devoted crew, and fellow racers David Calabrese and Brandon Gdovic lending a hand with equipment to help the team finish out 2016 with a part-time slate.

“We just prayed to the good Lord about it to see what needed to be done,” Bassett Jr. said. “It kind of worked out. We have more than what we had when we were working out of our other shop. We’ve been blessed with a lot of great people.”

Bassett Jr. led the final 42 laps, sweating through a pair of red flags for accidents, including a final stack-up near the front of the field that knocked his brother and NASCAR Next driver Tyler Dippel from contention. It marked the first laps led in a K&N East career that’s spanned 40 races since 2013.

Though Bassett Jr. amassed a three-second lead on the half-mile track over the closing laps, he and his father remained antsy. Intense racing behind him threatened a late caution, and then there were the reminders of the mix-up from last season.

Bassett actually crossed under the checkered flag first at New Smyrna in 2016, emerging from a three-car fracas with Todd Gilliland and Spencer Davis. But race officials determined that an extra lap had been inadvertently run beyond the scheduled distance, handing the victory to Gilliland. There was no doubt Sunday night.

“I had a counter in my hand tonight,” Bassett Sr. said with a laugh. “We were definitely watching the flagstand, that’s for sure. It’s all good, though.”

For his son, the victory was a needed boost after a long dry spell. Bassett had two runner-up efforts sprinkled among his nine previous top-five finishes, including a third place at New Smyrna last year.

After leaving the Florida half-mile with trophy in hand, Bassett said the sense of rejuvenation was real.

“It’s been very, very tough on myself — I went from running good in Late Model Stocks and then coming to these things, it’s like punching myself in the heart,” Bassett Jr. said, adding that the family plans a full K&N East schedule in its rebuilding year. “To come back and have a good race car and lead laps tonight, it builds my confidence back to know that I can still do it.”