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T.J.’s Notebook: Wrapping Up the 2017 Knoxville Nationals

(l to r) Third Place Kerry Madsen, winner Donny Schatz, and second place Kyle Larson with the Knoxville Nationals Queen and her court. (Mark Funderburk photo)

Closing out the Knoxville Nationals with some sort of column/blog is always the most difficult task I face every year. Trying to convey the biggest four days of sprint car racing in the world is a challenge, but I tried my best to take you along for the ride sort of speak virtually everywhere I went.

With that in mind here are some of my final thoughts on the 2017 Nationals.

Money Schatz

Another chapter of Knoxville Nationals history has been written and for the 10th time Donny Schatz’s name was recorded as the victorious driver. Schatz’s run of Nationals titles is remarkable considering all the potential pitfalls drivers manage to avoid in the Knoxville Nationals format.

Schatz’s victory isn’t so much about equipment as it is the people. The length of time Schatz and Ricky Warner have spent working together on the grueling World of Outlaws circuit is remarkable. Even successful combinations of people find ways to implode with the grind. The people involved are a large part of why you rarely see Schatz have a mechanical failure.

To put it in perspective Steve Kinser has 12 Knoxville Nationals victories. During Kinser’s career it was widely believed the numbers he put up would be untouchable. Now Kinser’s win record at the Nationals looks well within reach when considering Schatz’s age (40) and the fitness regimen he keeps.

After 10 wins its difficult to come up with words to describe how remarkable Schatz’s run is. Key word being “is” because I think we’re not close to seeing a decline.

Throw in his Kings Royal victory the focus turns to seeing if Schatz can win the Williams Grove National Open to win arguably the three biggest sprint car races in the country and another World of Outlaws title.

#letkylerace turns into #kylewinssunday

Kyle Larson’s amazing story with the preliminary win and #letkylerace movement was one position away at Knoxville from the best possible outcome. Larson’s being able to perform well on Saturday was great for racing, his win on Sunday was even better for sprint car racing.

Had Larson not performed well on Sunday the likelihood of Knoxville Nationals/NASCAR at Michigan International Speedway double happening again would likely be nil. With MIS on the same weekend as nationals next year I wonder if Larson will attempt this double dip again? Depending on sponsors impression of the buzz the Knoxville/MIS weekend created they may want him to do it.

The other question is if Larson struggles a bit in the chase if they sneak him off to build up some confidence at a random sprint car race somewhere? It would be interesting if it would create a spark, even though Larson indicated Knoxville would be his last sprint car start this season.

Knoxville Raceway’s cushion was unusually precarious for Saturday’s 50-lap finale. Turns three and four featured a lot of character and even caught Schatz off guard.

“I didn’t know it was really like that, at the beginning of the race David (Gravel) was going so hard we were really running through there at full throttle and you didn’t really notice it until you started lifting,” said Schatz. “On the yellow, I was man right in the center of the corner it’s pretty deep there and if a guy hits that wrong it’s going to launch you into the fence. You become a little more aware of it. He hit it pretty good a couple of times. He was in air a good eight, ten inches a few times. I don’t know if that’s what caused him to have something break. I tried to hit it before I got there and kind of skip over it.”

Gravel’s heartbreak…

When the engine David Gravel’s broke a crankshaft on Saturday night you could hear a majority of the crowd gasp. Some of it might have been from Schatz running second, but I think just about anyone could relate to the heartbreak that young man had to experiencing at that moment. With the perfect score on his preliminary night and being able to counter Schatz’s first challenge for the lead it was going to be very interesting to see Gravel in the mix at the end.

Now the challenge for Gravle and CJB Motorsports is to carry on and focus on catching up in the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series point standings where they currently sit third, 128 points out of the lead.

Madsen’s near miss

While a lot of the focus was on Schatz and Larson one of the fastest cars on Saturday night was Kerry Madsen. Madsen could hang with Schatz up front a majority of the event. Larson passed Madsen on a failed attempt to slide Schatz for the lead. Schatz even admitted that had Madsen got by him at that point it could have changed the outcome.

The bottom worked for some

While the bottom of the race track was not the preferred line for most some drivers did make up ground using that line. Jason Johnson made a run during the first half of the race from 17th starting spot up to the top 10 before getting too tight the second half of the race.

Aaron Reutzel secured hard charger honors after rolling the bottom of the track during the second half of the race up to the 7th position.

Wild ending of the B-Main

While the performances in the A-Main lead all the headlines the end of Saturday’s B-Main was among the wildest racing action of the weekend. The scramble during the closing laps for the final three transfer spots was some of the highest drama of the week.

Brook Tatnell, Chad Kemenah, Trey Starks, and Lucas Wolfe found themselves in a torrid race for those final two spots in Saturday’s finale. By the time it was done Tatnell and Starks found themselves in the race while Wolfe went from third to fifth on the outside looking in with Kemenah.

In a side note Larson was not the only double duty driver on Sunday as Wolfe flew back to New York to compete with the Empire Super Sprints.

In closing, thank you…

I must thank our loyal readership that came to the site in record numbers for this year’s Nationals. Kendra Jacobs, John McCoy, and the entire Knoxville Raceway staff could not have been more accommodating and made doing my job easier and extremely enjoyable. All the race teams were extremely accommodating, from the largest to the smallest.

A special thanks to Jon and Jacque for being gracious hosts and Rex, Nick, James, Denver, Greg and Jean for all the laughs and memories that always lasts long after the cars stop on the track.

Time to make plans…

The 2018 5-hour ENERGY Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Stores will be held August 8-11, 2018.