The historic pace at the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals continued Saturday night for Tony Stewart-Curb/Agajanian Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz. The eight-time and reigning World of Outlaws (WoO) Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion led the final 27 laps of the 50-lap finale of the 57th annual 5-hour ENERGY Knoxville Nationals to earn his 10th Nationals victory.
Schatz started second in the TSR No. 15 Arctic Cat/Ford Performance/Curb J&J and led the field to the green on lap 23 after polesitter David Gravel brought out a caution. Schatz withstood challenges from both Kerry Madsen and Kyle Larson to pick up his 26th career triumph at the famed half-mile dirt oval in Central Iowa and continued his remarkable run on Sprint car racing’s biggest stage, where he’s finished first or second 16 of the past 18 years.
“Winning the Knoxville Nationals never gets old and never gets any easier,” Schatz said. “I may get a lot of the credit, but this Arctic Cat/Ford Performance race team is incredible and they deserve every bit as much. Nobody realizes the pressure that is on this team. They have to make the right decisions every time. With as many races as we have won, the pressure just keeps building and building because, if you don’t win, you are under a lot of scrutiny and we don’t want to be in that position. We want to win races. We want to be competitive and be at the forefront of this sport. Tony Stewart has assembled and incredible team here. We are celebrating 10 years together and tonight we are going to celebrate another incredible week here at the Knoxville Nationals.”
Schatz started on the front row for the sixth time in his career at the Nationals following an impressive qualifying-night performance Wednesday. He qualified fourth in the field of 48 competitors and charged from eighth to win the fourth heat race to transfer into the 25-lap preliminary feature. He started sixth in the A-Main and quickly began his charge forward. He was up to third on lap five and took second from Austin McCarl on lap 13. Polesitter Larson was setting a strong pace up front, but Schatz was able to close the gap as the two worked through lapped traffic. Larson didn’t make any mistakes during the final portion of the race and scored the win ahead of Schatz. The results of the evening earned Schatz 492 points, the most by any driver.
Following Thursday’s qualifying program, Schatz ranked second overall and was locked into Saturday’s A-Main finale.
When Saturday’s A-Main went green, Gravel and Schatz raced side by side into turn one. Gravel dove low and pulled out to a small lead coming out of turn two and, when Gravel went high in turns three and four, Schatz made a run for the lead with a low move in turns three and four. Gravel had enough momentum to maintain the top spot and the two settled in for the early portion of the race. Once Gravel reached traffic, Schatz was able to close in and make a run at the top spot. He tried a slide job in turns three and four and later briefly held the lead down the backstretch on lap 16, but Gravel was able to surge back in front and hold the top spot until his engine expired on lap 22.
Schatz led the field back to the green and raced away from Madsen until a caution two laps later was used for the mandatory pit stop. The TSR crew of Rick Warner, Steve Swenson and Brad Mariscotti replaced the rear tires, filled the Arctic Cat No. 15 with fuel and made minor chassis adjustments before sending Schatz back out for the second half of the race. On the restart, Schatz rode the cushion in turn one and Madsen made his bid for the lead by throwing a big slider at Schatz, but Schatz never flinched and drove around the outside of Madsen to maintain the lead. The gamble cost Madsen second as Larson was able to sneak under the Australian driver coming out of turn two.
For the next dozen laps, Schatz set a torrid pace around the top and held a solid margin over Larson until another caution on 38 slowed the pace. Schatz was clean again on the restart and re-established his lead with only 10 laps remaining. Things got dicey during the final three laps as Schatz tried to maneuver lapped traffic. He split a pair of cars and then was forced to make a couple of attempts to lap Brooke Tatnell. Larson was able to cut into the lead, but his last-corner attempt at a slide job fell short and Schatz drove away for the victory.
“These young guys keep getting better, and that Kyle Larson is pretty awesome,” Schatz said. “Early in the race, David set a really torrid pace and he was right up on the top. There were some pretty big holes up there and I didn’t even realize how big they were until we got slowed down on one of those yellows when I saw them and said to myself I may want to be careful up here. Once we got going, I felt really good, but you have to get yourself to the end of the race. You have to make sure when you get into traffic that you are in a good spot, that you are in the right place, and I did that for most of the race. We came down to that last 12-lap run there and I thought we might catch traffic at the end and we caught them. I got to a car that was just going for it and got myself in a couple of bad spots, but we got there. I know Kyle was coming and he had to do whatever I wasn’t and, for two laps, I was all over the place. That’s what racing is. It’s what we strive for and, if I was running second, that’s what I would have been hoping for. It worked out. We got the win and it feels good.”
Knoxville Nationals Notes:
- This was the 25th Knoxville Nationals for Schatz, who made his debut in 1993 as an 18-year-old. In his debut, he qualified 63rd and finished sixth in the non-qualifiers race.
• After qualifying fourth in Wednesday’s preliminary program, Schatz raced from eighth to win his seventh career qualifying-night heat race.
- His runner-up finish Wednesday was his seventh second-place finish and third in a row in Knoxville Nationals qualifying programs.
- Saturday’s triumph was number 10 for Schatz and the 11th Knoxville Nationals A-Main win for car owner Tony Stewart. Schatz has won eight driving for TSR and the organization earned three Nationals triumphs with Danny Lasoski (2001, 2003, and 2004).
- By leading 27 laps Saturday, Schatz surpassed Steve Kinser as the all-time lap leader in the Nationals. Schatz now has led 320 laps, 19 more than Kinser. Schatz also became the first driver in Nationals history to lead laps in 14 A-Mains.
• Schatz trails only Kinser (12) for most Nationals A-Main wins.
• Schatz ranks 10th all-time with 26 career wins at Knoxville Raceway.
- He now has 245 career WoO A-Features wins.
• Schatz has career earnings of $2.17 million in his 25 Knoxville Nationals appearances.
The Nationals only provided WoO teams with participation points since the event follows a format that differs from the regular WoO program. Schatz continues to the lead the 2017 WoO championship standings and has a 82-point advantage over Brad Sweet.
With the Nationals behind them, Schatz and the TSR team will prepare for the Outlaws’ annual August run through North Dakota before heading west for the next month. The North Dakota native will compete on his home soil three nights starting Friday at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks before Saturday’s return to Red River Valley Speedway in Fargo. The Fargo event was originally scheduled for June but was washed out and rescheduled for this weekend. The finale of the weekend will be held at Nodak Speedway in Schatz’s hometown of Minot.