David Gravel winning the Knoxville Nationals was not a surprise. Gravel was fresh off of a win in the in the Capitani Classic – the Sunday race run each year in honor of longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter Ralph Capitani – that for many teams serves as a dry run of the Nationals, outdueling Brian Brown on his home turf.
In 2017, Gravel scored a perfect 500 points to sit on the pole of sprint car racing’s biggest race and led until retired by engine failure. And, he bested 2018 winner Brad Sweet on his prelim night to put himself on the front row.
But it was a stressful week for Gravel.
In January, he met four-time NASCAR champion and sprint car alumni Jeff Gordon. Gordon revealed that he had been watching Gravel and had become a fan. More than that, he wanted to offer some support to Gravel’s career.
For the Knoxville Nationals, Gordon was able to bring a marketing partner onboard for the Jason Johnson Racing sprint car piloted by the Connecticut driver in the form of Axalta, a former sponsor of Gordon’s for whom Gordon has served as Global Business Advisor.
There would be just one caveat: as Axalta is a manufacturer of liquid and powder coatings, the JJR No. 41 graphics must be painted for Knoxville, as opposed to using vinyl graphics. As an aside, JJR’s painted mount, bearing the Axalta name and colors, won this year’s “Best Appearing Car” honors (they also won the “Best Appearing Crew” award).
This certainly wasn’t Gordon’s first trip to the Knoxville Nationals, but it was the first in support of Gravel. And, in addition to pressure to perform for Gordon and Axalta, former Formula 1 driver Mark Webber also came along to experience Knoxville for the first time.
A track that never really widened up set the tone for the week on Wednesday night. Very few of the night’s fastest qualifiers were able to overcome the inversion in their respective heats to transfer into the night’s preliminary feature. The most notable was 10-time Knoxville Nationals winner Donny Schatz.
Schatz timed in 10th, but ended his heat race in sixth-place, falling two spots short of a transfer spot. The Tony Stewart Racing crew went to work with an engine change following the heat race.
Ian Madsen took quick time for the night, with a lap of 15.165 seconds around the big half-mile. Madsen finished sixth in his heat, as well.
Aaron Reutzel was one of the few fast qualifiers to transfer through his heat. Reutzel qualified second-quick, then finished second in his heat race to transfer.
Paul McMahan timed sixth, then took the final transfer spot in heat number one. Brent Marks timed 11th, then took third in heat number one.
Kyle Larson timed ninth, finished seventh in his heat race, then finished sixth in the B-Main, failing to transfer. Since he had NASCAR obligations on Friday night, his participation in the Nationals was done.
Tim Kaeding, Gio Scelzi, Ian Madsen and Schatz transferred out of the B. In the A-Main, Trey Starks started fourth, but swept past both Sheldon Haudenschild and James McFadden on the high side of the first turn to take over second.
Starks slid Mark Dobmeier in turns three and four on lap five to take the lead and stayed out front to earn the win. McFadden drove Kasey Kahne’s mount to second.
Haudenschild took third, Dobmeier was fourth, and Reutzel drove from eighth to fifth to end the night as high point man with 487.
Brent Marks, Tanner Thorson, Jac Haudenschild, Paul McMahan and Tim Kaeding rounded out the top 10, with Kaeding driving from 21st to 10th to end the night second in points with 466.
Sunny, hot weather was becoming the norm for the week as Thursday night’s program kicked off. Shane Stewart earned quick time with a lap of 15.679 before backing into the turn three wall in his heat race, resulting in an ugly flip that parked the team for the remainder of the night. Shane was uninjured in the crash.
While most of the fast-timers again failed to transfer through their inverted heats, some were able to make the charge on Thursday’s track.
Second-quick Tim Shaffer, fourth-quick Daryn Pittman, sixth-quick Brian Brown, seventh-quick Jacob Allen and eighth-quick Scott Bogucki failed to make the top-four in their heats.
However, third-quick Parker Price-Miller, fifth-fast Joey Saldana and 10th-quick Matt Juhl were among the fast cars that did.
Also making the transfer after a good qualifying run was David Gravel, who timed ninth then ran second in his heat.
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