After five years away from the top step, Donny Schatz finally returned to glory at Knoxville Raceway.
Rallying late in the running, the Fargo, ND superstar found another gear on the bottom side and drove by David Gravel on the 46th lap to put his Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing, Ford Performance, Carquest Auto Parts #15 in command.
While a sold-out crowd of 20,000+ fans in Knoxville, Iowa erupted for the 10-time World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series champion, the 45-year-old kept his cool and thought about his late father, Danny Schatz. He aced the final five laps and kept Gravel at bay, driving away to earn his 11th title at the NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Stores.
“There are no words for this,” Schatz said. “I could hear my dad [Danny Schatz] telling me to gather it up and settle down and it worked.”
Schatz’s victory brings him within one away from tying Steve Kinser (12) for the most titles in the history of the Knoxville Nationals. It was even more rewarding considering the fact that Schatz fell as far back as seventh in the early running. The Tony Stewart Racing/Curb-Agajanian Racing crew – led by Steve Swenson, Todd Devnich, Ayrton Olson – aced the halfway break and gave Schatz a car capable of winning, from there it was up to the champ.
He restarted in sixth and promptly drove by everyone in his sight as he returned to the mountaintop.
“I didn’t drive like I should at the beginning,” Schatz added. “We were decent both nights, but took a big swing at it and tried something new with the motor tonight. I didn’t know if we were gonna get there after I fell as far back as I did. I just couldn’t control the wheel spin.”
The halfway break at Lap 25 allowed his crew to go to work and it paid dividends. They gave him the car capable of winning, and Donny did what Donny does best.
“Scuba [Steve Swenson] could read me like a book and knew when I didn’t say anything that he should throw the 911 at it,” Schatz spoke on his crew. “These guys did an incredible job. It was do or die on the bottom. I kept getting better and better there at the end. This one feels like the first time, really.”
After leading laps 27-45, David Gravel fell short of Donny Schatz by 0.747-seconds at the checkered flag. The Big Game Motorsports #2 was stout on the highline, but the TSR #15 proved to be too dominant rolling the bottom. The Watertown, CT native banked $80,000 for his runner-up result but will have to wait another year to try and chase his second Knoxville Nationals title.
“Sometimes it better to be running second,” Gravel said after missing out on his second Nationals title. “We had a great car and I was aggressive early, but I just didn’t want to get off the top. I heard Donny coming and in hindsight, I should’ve tried running down. It’s just hard to change it up when you’re leading and feeling good up top. It’s a bummer for sure. I want to win of these for Tod Quiring. I’m only 30 years old and I’ll have plenty of more chances, but it still stings.”
Rounding out the podium on Saturday night was Logan Schuchart with a phenomenal 17th-to-third run in the Shark Racing, DuraMAX Oil, Drydene Performance Products #1S. The Hanover, PA native collected a season-best $40,000 for his efforts in The Grandaddy of ‘Em All.
“I’m thrilled with what this team has accomplished,” Schuchart said after a stellar week. “I’m proud of every single person at Shark Racing and it starts with what my grandfather started. We’re just a family-owned team competing for wins on the biggest stage in the world. I honestly felt like I was gaining on them through the last five laps, but we just didn’t start far enough forward. Starting 17th and finishing 3rd is pretty amazing.”
After leading laps 2-26, Tyler Courtney finished fourth for a career-best Knoxville Nationals effort worth $26,000 aboard his Clauson-Marshall Racing, NOS Energy Drink #7BC. Jacob Allen concluded a sensational week in Iowa by driving from 11th to fifth in his Shark Racing #1A, banking $21,000 for his run.
Closing out the top-10 at the 61st Knoxville Nationals was Kyle Larson ($20,000) after rallying from a shredded tire, Brent Marks ($19,000) after battling for a podium, Sheldon Haudenschild ($18,000) with Hard Charger honors from 23rd-to-eighth, Brad Sweet ($17,000) in the NAPA Auto Parts #49, and Daryn Pittman. ($16,000) with a top-10 in his return with Heffner Racing.
Buddy Kofoid finished 11th to earn JETCO Rookie of the Year honors, setting the highest finish by a rookie at the Knoxville Nationals since the turn of the century.
NOS Energy Drink Feature Results (50 Laps) – 1. 15-Donny Schatz (3); 2. 2-David Gravel (4); 3. 1S-Logan Schuchart (17); 4. 7BC-Tyler Courtney (2); 5. 1A-Jacob Allen (11); 6. 57-Kyle Larson (6); 7. 19-Brent Marks (7); 8. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild (23); 9. 49-Brad Sweet (9); 10. 27H-Daryn Pittman (8); 11. 11X-Michael Kofoid (14); 12. 13-Justin Peck (19); 13. 24R-Rico Abreu (21); 14. 8-Aaron Reutzel (16); 15. 83JR-Kerry Madsen (22); 16. 88-Austin McCarl (1); 17. 41-Carson Macedo (5); 18. 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips (15); 19. 83-James McFadden (20); 20. 21-Brian Brown (24); 21. 39-Justin Sanders (13); 22. 18-Giovanni Scelzi (18); 23. 25-JJ Hickle (10); 24. 11M-Parker Price-Miller (12).