Tears welled up in his eyes, his voice catching slightly, in the post-race victory lane interview with Knoxville Raceway’s Mike Roberts. “I could see Donny (Schatz) was taking huge chunks out of my lead, lap after lap, and I knew it was gonna time down to where he was right on my rear bumper. And I just told myself, ‘I know he’s here.’ Down the frontstretch, ‘I know he’s on your rear bumper.’ ‘Just don’t miss it.’ And, it feels great to beat Donny here for the Nationals. He beat me a few years ago and he’s the best there is.”
Kyle Larson was right. Donny Schatz had caught Larson on the final lap of the 60th NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals. The track had taken rubber, and although Schatz could reach him, he couldn’t pass him, and Larson claimed the checkers and victory in what he referred to as “the biggest race of the year” and a race he’s “always dreamed of winning.”
For 2021, Eldora Speedway’s two Kings Royals each paid a hefty $175,000. A month earlier, Larson collected the winner’s check in the 37th running (while Tyler Courtney did the same in the 38th running, contested on the same day). The Nationals paid $150,000 to win, but this year Knoxville Raceway management introduced an additional $1,000 bonus for each of the 50 laps led. Kyle took over the point from Schatz to lead the 25th circuit, just prior to the halfway fuel stop, and held the lead for the remainder of the race. In doing so, his check totaled $176,000 and the Nationals remained the highest-paying sprint car race of the season.
Although Schatz certainly wasn’t satisfied with his second-place finish, after struggling throughout a challenging process of developing a new Ford sprint car engine, during the Nationals Donny looked like Donny again.
As the old saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” With the 60th running of the Nationals postponed last August due to the pandemic, the excitement throughout the Marion County Fairgrounds was palpable throughout this year’s events. Even Larson alluded to its presence in victory lane, adding that he was as nervous as he’s been leading up to a race in years.
Despite many regular attendees from oversees unable to attend due to COVID protocols – in particular, the huge contingent from Australia – Knoxville Raceway management was able to issue a press release on Friday stating that Saturday evening was officially sold out.
As they rolled into Knoxville, the crowd was greeted by sunshine and warm weather.
On Wednesday, David Gravel took part in the now-traditional unveiling of the “champion pole” adorned with his name and images from his win in the previous Knoxville Nationals. Though he now drives Tod Quiring’s mount, in 2019 he piloted the Jason Johnson Racing No. 41 to Knoxville’s victory lane, and car owners Bobbi and Jaxx Johnson were also on hand to take part in the unveiling.
POINTS AFTER WED. & THURS.
1 – Gio Scelzi – 487
2 – Brad Sweet – 481
3 – Kyle Larson – 480
4 – Brent Marks – 479
5 – Donny Schatz – 477
6 – David Gravel – 475
7 – Kasey Kahne – 475
8 – Logan Schuchart – 472
9 – Brian Brown – 471
10 – Ian Madsen – 463
11 – Brooke Tatnell – 460
12 – Tyler Courtney – 460
13 – James McFadden – 459
14 – Justin Henderson – 458
15 – Justin Peck – 458
16 – Danny Dietrich – 449
From 1980 through 1995, “The King,” 12-time winner Steve Kinser reigned supreme over the Nationals. From 2006 through 2017 it was 10-time winner Donny Schatz in control. Throughout those eras, racers and attendees arrived in Marion County, Iowa well aware of the name of the man to beat.
With Schatz still battling his engine program, 2021 opened the door for several possibilities, with fans debating a bevy of possible winners.
Gravel was one such contender. The reigning champion had seven Outlaws wins under his belt in 2021 entering the Nationals. And 2018 winner Brad Sweet not only led the Outlaw point battle as he rolled into Iowa, but also led the season win list with an impressive 14 feature victories.
Several other drivers showed potential to add their name to the history books, as well. But, by far, the name most discussed was Larson. Although he had never won the Nationals, his 2020 short track blitz and 2021 NASCAR and short track season steamrolling to victory lanes earned Kyle respect as a man very likely to win. In 2020, the Capitani Classic ended with Larson standing atop the podium in victory lane. However, “The One and Only” was not the Knoxville Nationals. Knoxville has a long history of drivers – some weekly regulars – who can repeatedly tame the historic half-mile against stout competition, but struggle to perform under the pressures of the biggest race of the year. Larson had competed in the Nationals in previous years, and had failed to walk away with the big trophy.
Several NASCAR/IndyCar media members were present in the media center for their inaugural trips to the Nationals, their focus centered entirely on Larson.
Wednesday was hot and sunny leading into the BRANDT Professional Agriculture Qualifying Night, the first of the two split-field regular qualifying nights. Forty-nine cars took time.
Brooke Tatnell has logged a lot of laps on Knoxville Raceway, and he used the experience to his advantage, recording quick time with a lap of 15.208, edging out Geo Scelzi by a hundredth of a second. Logan Schuchart timed third (15.249), Donny Schatz fifth (15.403), and David Gravel ninth (15.470).