Four-time World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Series champion Donny Schatz led the Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) contingent in the 41st Annual University of Northwestern Ohio DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., earning a victory, a runner-up finish and a fourth-place run in a span of just over 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday.
Twenty-time champion Steve Kinser kicked off his third season driving the No. 11 Bass Pro Shops/J.D. Byrider/Chevrolet Maxim with a top-10 on Saturday night before battling difficult track conditions in Sunday’s rare WoO doubleheader. Stewart, who earlier in the afternoon qualified 10th for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, made his 2012 WoO debut in the TSR No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 J&J and finished 11th in Sunday night’s 25-lap A-Feature.
Schatz, driver of the No. 15 STP/Armor All/Chevrolet J&J for TSR, finished the 2011 season with a flurry, sweeping the World Finals event to close the campaign. The Fargo, N.D., racer had to wait an additional 24 hours to try and make it three straight WoO victories when persistent rain forced WoO officials to postpone Friday’s opening-night event until Sunday afternoon. On Saturday night, Schatz qualified 17th in the field of 35 cars and began the 30-lap A-Feature in position 15. Early in the race, he climbed quickly into the top-10 and remained there until the race reached the halfway point. During the final 10 laps, Schatz surged forward, picking up positions lap after lap. He reached the top-five with three laps remaining and closed on Brad Sweet for third on the final circuit before finishing fourth.
The charge through the field was the foundation for Sunday’s success, which began with Schatz qualifying 16th overall. He led every lap of each race he competed in the rest of the program, leading all eight in heat four, six in the dash to earn the pole position, and all 20 in the feature to earn his first WoO A-Feature in 2012. The victory was his 114th career WoO A-Feature win and marked the fourth-time Schatz has won an opening-weekend race at Volusia (2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012).
“This was a team win today,” said Schatz following his 10th victory at Volusia Speedway Park. “We spent the early part of the week working on some things and this was the result. The track conditions were tough on everyone and we were fortunate to start both the heat and dash up front. We took advantage of the situation and got that first victory of the season out of the way. Winning races is what matters most.”
In Sunday night’s finale, Schatz followed his success from earlier in the day by qualifying 11th to open the festivities. He scored flag-to-flag victories in the third heat and dash and, by doing so, earned his second pole position of the day. Craig Dollansky beat Schatz into turn one to start the 25-lap A-Feature, and Schatz followed him through the early portions of the race. On lap 13, he squeezed inside Dollansky coming out of turn two to take the lead, but Dollansky returned the favor in turn four to maintain the lead. Schatz made one more run for the win on the final lap but couldn’t pull off the pass and finished second.
To say that both programs on Sunday were a struggle for Kinser would be an understatement. The track conditions made it difficult for competitors deep in any field to drive forward. Kinser used a provisional starting spot in Sunday afternoon’s 20-lap feature. The Bloomington, Ind., driver did advance from his 25th starting position before his right-rear tire blew. The Bass Pro Shops crew replaced the tire and he would race back to 17th during the final two circuits. Sunday evening’s program went a little better for “The King of the Outlaws” as he timed in 16th and finished third in the fourth heat. In the feature, he worked his way up to 11th and tried for a number of laps to crack the top-10 before ultimately finishing 12th.
“Things didn’t go how we planned down here,” Kinser said. “I’ve had good weekends down here in the past and some really bad ones, too. It’s Florida in February. That’s about all you need to say. Anything can happen. We’ll go back home and get ready to head out west for a good month of racing.”
With the proximity of Volusia to Daytona, Stewart took advantage of another opportunity to compete in Sprint car racing’s premiere division. After scoring his first career WoO triumph last summer, the three-time And defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion was looking to earn his second on Sunday night. He qualified seventh in the field and finished third in heat three to earn a seventh-row starting position in the 25-lap A-Feature. Stewart battled several WoO veterans throughout the race and looked smooth running the bottom groove around the half-mile dirt oval. Stewart passed Kinser late to work his way into 11th, which is where he finished.
The strong start has pushed Schatz to the top of the 2012 WoO championship standings. He leads Sammy Swindell by five markers after three of 78 scheduled nights of racing, while Kinser ranks 13th.
Next up for TSR is a stop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Dirt Track on March 8.