For the third year in a row, when Donny Schatz arrived at The Dirt Track at Charlotte for the World Finals, he wasn‘t contending for a championship.
Despite earning the same number of wins as World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series champion Brad Sweet — both collected five victories this season — Schatz ended his year fourth in points.
His downfall: consistency.
While the No. 15 Tony Stewart Racing driver isn‘t satisfied and is eager to return to what he calls “championship caliber” next season, he ended his campaign on a high note. Schatz suffered a DNF on the opening night of the World Finals, but came back with a relentless vigor that allowed him to secure back-to-back victories totaling $40,000 on Friday and Saturday night at The Dirt Track.
“It was kind of like a déjà vu repeat,” Schatz said following his win on Saturday night. “All we could do coming here this weekend is run the best we could.”
Schatz entered the World Finals fifth in points behind, but his two victories propelled him past Sheldon Haudenschild in the standings. However, with only 28 top-five finishes in a season with 69 starts, Schatz recognizes that as a major shortcoming that kept him from being in the title hunt.
“We‘ve got to have more respectable seconds,” Schatz said. “You can‘t run eighth or ninth 20 or 30 times through the year.”
Schatz started the season strong, winning the opening night at Volusia Speedway Park in February. Schatz struggled to string together another victory until the World of Outlaw‘s visit to Weedsport Speedway in July.
He picked up significant momentum in the late summer with an impressive win (his 11th) at the Knoxville Nationals. Schatz refers to the crown-jewel victory as the “highlight of our year. If you can win the Nationals, it almost makes a bad season good.”
The Tony Stewart Racing team rallied in an attempt to capitalize on their success, but Schatz‘s next visit to the top of the podium wasn‘t in the cards for another two months.
“It‘s been one of them seasons,” Schatz said. And while it‘s easy to sit back at the end of it all and pinpoint what went wrong, he added, “You can‘t be a Monday morning quarterback and say it after the fact. You‘ve got to be able to recognize these things on race night.”
To Schatz‘s credit, he‘s had a myriad of changes thrown at him this year and he‘s done his best to face them with grace — changes related to Ford engine performance, the World of Outlaws schedule itself and loss of personnel in the mid-season.
According to the 45-year-old, even the way people race has changed.
“Sometimes the younger guys, they have no fear. They do something at all costs, and they don‘t know most days what that is,” Schatz said. “I come from a different era where it wasn‘t like that.”
As a formidable veteran of the series, the 10-time series champion has been around the World of Outlaws scene for 26 years. Most of the drivers he used to race week-in and week-out have since retired from the sport while the young, emerging talents have come along and taken their places.
It‘s been a process for Schatz to adjust to the new normal on the race track — what he refers to as an “all-cost” style of driving. But he doesn‘t believe it has made him any less of a competitor once the green flag waves.
“I still have a lot left in me. I just have to give what I get on the race track,” Schatz said.
Though, he won only five times this season, his victory in Saturday‘s season finale was the 307th of his World of Outlaws career.
“This place has been good to me over the years. I remember when I was real young and won a race here, I thought ‘Man, we won a race at Charlotte,‘ cause it‘s across from the big track,” Schatz said. “It holds a lot of weight.”
By the end of Saturday night‘s finale, Schatz had upped his track record to 14 victories, extending his reign as the winningest driver at the facility. If there was a way Schatz wanted to end his season, that was it.
On the opening day of the World Finals, the 10-time champion admitted he was ready to head home and let the team catch their breath. “Today” was the moment he was most proud of, with the team persevering all the way to the end of a challenging season.
During the winter, Schatz is planning to hit the reset button and approach 2023 with a new mentality.
“We‘ve been building on the same things for years. But we‘re going to have to find a different way to do it,” Schatz said. “We‘re going back to the championship status, or something‘s going to have to change around here, whether it‘s me or something.”