Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz was looking to become only the second driver in Knoxville Nationals history to win Sprint car racing’s biggest prize 10 times last week, but he came up a car length short Saturday night in the finale of the 56th annual 5-Hour Energy Knoxville Nationals at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. He had a spirited duel with Jason Johnson during the second half of Saturday’s 50-lap race with the two swapping the lead late. Schatz nearly pulled out the win by diving his TSR No. 15 Bad Boy Off Road Stampede/Chevrolet Performance J&J low around the bottom in the final turns, nearly pulling even with the leader, but he wasn’t able to beat Johnson to the finish line.
“He did a hell of a job,” Schatz said following his sixth career second-place finish at the Nationals. “To lead any lap of this race, it’s the toughest job in the world in Sprint car racing. He figured out how to make it work and get there first. Hats off to him. Naturally, I would like to be the one winning, but he earned it and figured out how to do it. I can’t thank Tony Stewart and all my guys enough for the work they put in to give us the chance we had tonight. It was a great race. We’ll come back next year and take another shot at it.”
Schatz opened the Nationals Wednesday night having won the prestigious event in each of his last five attempts. He debuted a special Bad Boy Off Road Stampede-schemed machine and qualified ninth in the field of 47 cars. The Fargo, North Dakota racer charged from seventh to third in the fourth heat to grab a spot in the 25-lap A-Main. He worked his way to third and challenged Shane Stewart for the lead prior to a lap-17 caution. Following the restart, Schatz took the lead, but Stewart slid his way back in front of Schatz in turn one, forcing Schatz to get out of the gas. As the laps wound down, Schatz remained close but didn’t get another shot at Stewart.
The finish, coupled with his qualifying points and heat points, totaled 476 markers and, following Thursday’s qualifying program, Schatz was fifth overall in points. Being inside the first four rows in Saturday’s 50-lap A-Main was the goal heading into the week, and the team was confident it would be a factor in the outcome heading into Saturday’s main event.
Schatz was fast as soon as the green flag waved in Saturday’s A-Main and without hesitation started his march to the front. He quickly dispatched second-row starters Jamie Veal and Kerry Madsen in the opening laps and began to track down front-row starters Daryn Pittman and Johnson. On lap 13, Schatz raced past Pittman for second in turns one and two and then took the lead from Johnson in turns three and four. He pulled away for the next 12 laps until a competition caution brought the race to a halt. Teams were given three minutes to make adjustments on their cars and TSR’s team, led by Rick Warner, Steve Swenson and Brad Mariscotti, put a fresh set of rear tires on the No. 15 and added fuel for the final 25 laps.
Schatz led the field back to green, but Johnson was all over him two laps later and moved underneath Schatz coming out of turn two to take the lead. Schatz kept pace and regained the lead on a pair of occasions, but Johnson continued sliding his way back in front. Schatz was also forced to deal with Madsen on lap 41 as the two battled for the second position before regaining the lead on lap 44 and 45. Johnson retook the top spot in turn one and pulled out to a significant lead during the next two circuits. Schatz finished the race with three extremely good laps, but he simply couldn’t overtake Johnson coming to the finish line.
Despite coming up short in his bid to win a sixth consecutive Nationals, Schatz was able to continue his streak of 12 straight top-two finishes in “The Granddaddy of Them All.” He has finished first or second in 15 of the previous 17 Nationals dating back to 2000.
After a pressure-packed week and one that was difficult for the TSR family and entire Sprint car community, Schatz and the Bad Boy Off Road/Chevrolet Performance team will continue their quest for an eighth World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series championship. They’ll race Tuesday night at Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Nebraska.