Eric Arnold takes a fresh look at the final night of the 52nd Knoxville Nationals including some very interesting and relevant “closing thoughts”.
Eric is a columnist for Flat Out Magazine, Newton Daily News, Hoseheads and Positively Racing. He is also the Twitter Correspondent for Knoxville Raceway and maintains a fantastic BLOG. You can catch him on http://hawkeyeovals.blogspot.com/
On paper Donny Schatz made it look it easy winning his sixth Knoxville Nationals crown, until you see the margin of victory of 0.117 seconds over runner-up Brian Brown. Schatz started fifth in the main event Saturday night of the 52nd annual Goodyear Knoxville Nationals and took the lead from pole sitter Stevie Smith on the 14th circuit and led the distance until Brown reeled him in at the end.
After 26 laps were complete the competition fuel stop was called and teams pitted for fuel and tires. With 24 laps remaining Schatz was leading Craig Dollansky, Brown, Stevie Smith, Kraig Kinser, Shane Stewart, and Jason Meyers to the restart. Schatz pulled away by half a straightaway in a matter of three laps, but the only unscheduled caution of the 50 lap event came out with 16 laps remaining when rookie of the Nationals Kyle Larson cut a left rear tire and rolled to a stop.
On the next restart Brown made his move to second passing Dollansky, and stayed within a few car lengths of Schatz for several laps. Both Brown and Schatz were running the high groove on the cushion which was rough all night, and both drivers bobbled getting into the ledge building up on the cushion off of turn two in the waning laps. Coming to the white flag Brown was knocking on the door and with lapped cars of Paul McMahan and Cody Darrah in front of the leaders, Schatz slowed a bit and Brown made the corners of his life in three and four and pulled up along-side Schatz off the last corner and they drag raced to the line with Schatz winning by a nose wing in the closest finish in nationals history.
Finishing third was front row starter Craig Dollansky. Dollanksy has had an impressive Nationals career but the disappointment on his face afterword was obvious. This was his seventh top five, and 13th top ten finish. Pole sitter Stevie Smith finished a disappointing seventh, and it was his 14th career top ten. Smith and Dollansky are arguably the most successful drivers not to win a Nationals title.
Over shadowing the feature event was those who didn’t race their way into Nationals Championship feature. 12 time champion Steve Kinser ended a 34 year consecutive run by ending his night tenth in the B-Main. Kinser hasn’t had good showings the previous past three years with finishes of 12th, 22nd, and 16th and that trend worsened. Kinser drew last in the Wednesday qualifying order and immediately his attitude was colorful in a negative manner to say the least. Although the King has three World of Outlaws wins this season and is in second place, only 17 points behind the leader Dollansky, it seems the King has lost his mojo at Knoxville.
Also not qualifying for the championship was four time champion Danny Lasoski who finished second in the C-Main, transferred to the B-Main, but only managed a 17th finish there, ending his night. Lasoski has failed to reach the championship race three years in a row. 2010 champion Tim Shaffer finished sixth in the B-Main two spots away from transferring. And one of the favorites to win the Nationals this year Sammy Swindell fell one spot short finishing fifth in the B-Main to end his night.
This night will be remembered as a night the torch was passed to a new generation of sprint car drivers.
The only Kinser in the championship race was 2005 champ Kraig Kinser, the son of Steve. Kraig had some fierce battles with Shane Stewart throughout most of the race and clawed his way to fourth, earning his second career top five Nationals finish. Shane Stewart started 13th and raced up to sixth at the halfway break, but couldn’t manage to go any further in the second half of the race.
The two time Outlaws champion Jason Meyers stepped back from racing full time in March this year and climbed in the Tarlton 21m car, who happened to purchase some of his old cars. Meyers stepped in his car and it fit like an old pair of shoes and was able to drive from seventh to fifth.
Winning the 22 lap B-Main was Mark Dobmeier and grabbing the other transfer positions was Davey Heskin second, Brian Paulus third, and Jason Sides fourth. Paulus had taken a three year hiatus from sprint car racing and last made the Nationals A-Main in 2006. Heskin who has been the point leader at Knoxville most of the season raced from 22nd to tenth earning hard charger honors and getting his second career top ten Nationals finish. Dobmeier raced up to 12th.
Joey Saldana started sixth in the championship, but Saldana pulled his car in after two laps in hot laps and his team had to change engines before the race started. Saldana ended in a disappointing eleventh place. Joey just seems snake bitten at Knoxville.
Rookie Kyle Larson, who won the Wednesday night preliminary feature, started 12th and seemingly had something wrong with his car from the start. After the blown tire he was able to finish 16th in his first career Nationals.
The race track started out narrow and fast as most race nights do. But the Saturday night of the Nationals track endures more laps than any night all year with 2,466 laps completed under race conditions. A normal 410-360 weekly race is 1,544 laps and with the 305 cars some weeks the total goes up to 1,855 if there is a full field of cars. So track conditions change rapidly and drastically. The last 7-8 laps the A-Main saw rubber down on the top and middle grooves of turns one and two, and the bottom groove was never really there all night. The bottom held up great in three and four. Next year I would be in favour of spending 30 minutes to rework the track surface with the aerator and sprinkle a little water on it before the A-Main to ensure it holds up for all 50 laps. If the track would have had a bottom groove and more grip in general, I think we would have seen a better race the second half. I applaud John McCoy for changing the number of transfer positions from two to four in all races this week. That opens it up to more opportunity for someone to race the alphabet. But I wouldn’t mind seeing 16 cars locked into all B, C, D, and E features instead of 20. And if we have to add a F and G main, so be it. Thinning out the herd wouldn’t be a bad thing.