From Bill Klingbeil
Indianapolis, IN. – One of the greatest things in sports is witnessing a champion earn a title. Each year, it seems no matter the sport, the script changes and that’s what keeps fans starving for more. There are fans on both sides of the fence – those who want to see dynasties like what NASCAR’s three-time-champion Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of, or those Bronx Bombers from New York, who are trying to win their 27th World Series crown, and there are those who always root for the underdog to come out on top.
Fans of three-time and defending World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Car Series champion Donny Schatz can relate with both. His fans enjoyed the ride beginning with Schatz’s WoO Rookie of the Year season in 1997 to his first series championship in 2006. They paid attention as he worked hard along the way, learning as much as he could during those early years on the tour with Sprint car icon Steve Kinser and series champions Sammy Swindell, Dave Blaney, Mark Kinser and Danny Lasoski.
Schatz, who is concluding his second season driving Tony Stewart Racing’s (TSR) No. 15 Armor All/Chevy/ParkerStore J&J, is doing everything he can to stay on top and make a legacy of his own. His journey to capture a fourth straight WoO title concludes with this weekend’s WoO season-ending World Finals event at The Dirt Track @ Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
The state-of-the-art dirt track is where Schatz clinched his previous two WoO titles. In each of those trips to North Carolina, Schatz arrived with a comfortable advantage in the championship standings of more than 100 points. This year, the Fargo, N.D., racer is locked in the closest championship points battle the Outlaws have had in their 31-year history. Schatz enters the two-night World Finals with a 19-point advantage over Jason Meyers, while Joey Saldana is only 46 points behind.
It’s just the kind of drama that every sport hopes to have entering the season’s final event. So much so that, in recent years, both NASCAR and NHRA instituted a playoff-type championship chase during the final portion of their schedules in hopes of creating a season-ending shootout for the championship. The Outlaws have had their share of championship blowouts during the past three decades, but this year, remarkably after 63 nights of racing, the championship ultimately will be decided on the final night.
Champions shine when the pressure is on and, over the past four years, no driver in Sprint car racing has produced better results than Schatz when it matters most. His four consecutive victories in the sport’s premiere event, the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals, are proof alone. And his ability to consistently win WoO races has allowed him to build a dynasty.
Schatz started the season with a victory in February and has his sights on closing the World of Outlaws season with a victory for the fifth time in his career (1999, 2004, 2006 and 2008 were the others). Last season, he capped his first season racing for TSR by leading all 30 laps of the season finale and was followed by his TSR teammate, Kraig Kinser. It was a bittersweet end to the year that included a third WoO title for Schatz and second for Tony Stewart as an owner.
Even though Schatz would prefer to enter the World Finals with a 100-point lead in the championship standings and having won the most WoO feature wins, as he did the past two years, he knows he still controls his own destiny in his pursuit of another championship.
He knows a little drama is good, sometimes, and the 32-year-old racer is welcoming another change for this year’s World Finals. For the first time in a WoO race and only the second event this season, Schatz will be driving a specially schemed car commemorating Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indianapolis 500-winning, STP-sponsored Brawner Hawk. In the Knoxville Nationals, he piloted the car that honored the 40th anniversary of Andretti’s and STP’s first victory at in the Indy 500. The distinctive Hunter Red-colored Sprinter, which includes the old-school STP logos, proved to be just as lethal for Schatz as he roared to his fourth straight victory in the event. By doing so, Schatz joined Steve Kinser as the only driver to win the race four consecutive times. If he can have another successful weekend in the No. 15 STP machine, chances are good that he’ll join Kinser as the only WoO driver to be a four-time champion.
Schatz will hit the 4/10-mile clay oval on Thursday night to open the World Finals festivities. Two rounds of qualifications will take place, with the results setting the lineups for Friday’s and Saturday’s complete programs. The programs will include heat races, a Crane Cams Dash, and conclude with a 30-lap feature event. He’s raced at the track on 21 previous occasions and has three career victories at the track. He has nine consecutive finishes inside the top-eight, including a third-place finish in May.
Schatz enters Saturday’s race following a sixth-place finish Oct. 25 at Lone Star Speedway. Schatz began that night by earning his series-leading 11th fast qualifier award. He has finish eighth or better in 22 of his last 23 WoO starts, including the last 11. The TSR Armor All team has competed in all 63 WoO “A” Feature events this season with Schatz scoring 12 victories, a series-leading 38 top-five finishes and 52 top-10s.
Saturday’s 2009 WoO season finale will be broadcast on SPEED-TV. Race fans can watch all of Saturday’s action unfold live on SPEED beginning at 8 p.m. EST.
On Thursday, the pit gates will open at 11 a.m., with the grandstands opening at 4 p.m. Hot laps are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the pit gates will open at 12:45 p.m. with the grandstands opening at 4 p.m. Hot laps are scheduled to begin at 5:45 p.m. For race tickets and other event information, contact Lowe’s Motor Speedway at (800) 455-3267. The official Web site of Lowe’s Motor Speedway is www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.
Race fans unable to attend this weekend’s races can catch all of the action on DIRTVision.com. Fans can listen live as Johnny Gibson, “Voice of the Outlaws,” calls the action as he does at all WoO Sprint Series events on the DIRTVision.com cybercast, as well as on the DIRT Radio Network. Go to www.DIRTVision.com for more information on all the site features, including updated results from each night of racing, as well as a chat room to interact with other race fans.
Donny Schatz, Driver of the No. 15 TSR/Armor All/Chevy/ParkerStore J&J:
In 2007, the World of Outlaws started a new tradition of closing their season with an event in Charlotte. The World Finals has grown into a pretty big race in just two years. What are your thoughts on the event?
“It’s an awesome event. We were all pretty skeptical at first, but it has brought in a lot of people from across the country. It’s pretty cool to see a standing-room-only crowd watch us race. It’s great for us to have another event at an awesome facility like Charlotte. For the Tony Stewart Racing team, it’s another chance to be in the spotlight. Also, the fact that the event has been able to combine both the Late Models and Sprint cars is really cool. Realistically, they could have two separate events with the number of cars, but I really like having us both part of the same show. It’s the only time of the year we get to run with them, so it’s fun for us to get to watch them, and it’s definitely a bonus for the fans.”
In year’s past, you pretty much had the championship locked up heading into Charlotte. How is your approach going to be different this time?
“I really don’t think it changes much. We went to Charlotte the past couple of years trying to win the final races of the year. I’d have to say that one of the best feelings a driver can have is winning the last race of the year. Everybody remembers that during the off-season while they’re getting ready for next year. We were able to do that last year in the World Finals, and if we can do it again, I think our championship chances would be pretty good.
“I know I’m going there with the best team in the business. Rick Warner, Shane Bowers and Eric Prutzman have put in a great effort all season, and now we just want to end the year in style.”
For the second time this season, you will be sporting a different look. You’ll be driving the Mario Andretti/STP tribute car that you won the Knoxville Nationals with. Is there any added pressure to win with the car again?
“Absolutely. No doubt about it. Being able to be associated with Mario Andretti is an honor. Meeting him this summer and talking with him every day of the Nationals was pretty incredible. We talked a few weeks ago and he was pumping me up about going out and finishing the season and winning the championship.
“Everything worked out how we hoped it would at the Nationals. The fun part now is going to Charlotte with the car and hopefully getting a few more wins with it. Mario told me he only associates with winners, so we’re going to do our best to get the STP car back to victory lane and carry on his winning tradition.”
For complete WoO Sprint Car Series results, go to www.worldofoutlaws.com. For information regarding TSR, Schatz, Armor All, Chevy, or ParkerStore, visit www.tonystewartracing.com, www.donnyschatz.com, www.aa-ownercenter.com, www.chevrolet.com, or www.parkerstore.com.