T.J.’s Takeaways from Thursday at the Knoxville Nationals

Lance Dewease (Serena Dalhamer photo)

After two nights of racing at the 59th Annual NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Stores here are some takeaways following F.O.E. Qualifying Night:

• One of the key moments on Thursday’s program took place in the first heat race when fast qualifier Shane Stewart took a wild flip into turn three. Having the fast qualifier crash out of his preliminary night was not that moment though.

On that initial start Central Pennsylvania standout Lance Dewease did not get a good start and was mired in the back of the pack. The second attempt to start the race saw Dewease work his way into third and quickly take over the second spot. Those heat race points combined helped Dewease and the Kreitz Racing Team overcome backing up from fourth starting spot to 14th in the main event and still lock into Saturday’s finale. The story has a happy ending, but I’m sure Dewease and the team were looking for a bit more than that out of their preliminary night and will have to pass a lot of cars in Saturday’s main event.

• One year removed from having to qualify for the Knoxville Nationals feature through the B-Main David Gravel seems to have regained the mojo he had in competition for a Nationals victory for Donny Schatz in 2017 before mechanical issues forced him out of the race. Gravel has been fast all season and asserted himself on Thursday as the primary contender to take on Sweet for the Nationals title on Saturday. Even with the spotlight shining on him from Jason Johnson’s legacy, the Axalta sponsorship and all of the people they brought to the race, and having Jeff Gordon and Mark Webber in the pit area watching is an over the top amount of pressure, yet Gravel seems to thrive on this and comes off as the same cool, collected person we see at a standard World of Outlaws program. If Gravel keeps his cool and crew chief Phillip Dietz keeps doing his magic with the car, I would consider Gravel the favorite to win on Saturday.

• If you wanted good stories of people that had hardship or were not on people’s radars to make the Knoxville Nationals finale then Thursday night was for you.

While most of the attention was focused on Brian Brown carrying the hopes of the local contingent at the Nationals it was Matt Juhl putting his car in the show for the second year in a row and first time through a preliminary night. Juhl put together a solid effort of 10th fastest in qualifying, finishing fourth in his heat race, and a solid ninth place in the A-Main.

Another driver that has overcome a lot of adversity this season to make the Saturday finale at Knoxville was Joey Saldana. After not planning on coming to Nationals a couple of weeks ago and the various issues the Ed Neumiester owned team led by Charlie and James Fisher had at the Kings Royal, Saldana and the team put all of that behind them to put their car inside the second row for the Saturday finale.

Both are amazing comeback stories and more proof that the Knoxville Nationals format is not broken, teams just need to perform at their best every time they hit the racetrack with no exceptions.

• All three of Thursday’s podium finishers had back row qualifying positions for Thursday’s preliminary program. Of those three only Macedo did not make Saturday’s finale, finishing 24th overall in points and will start in row four of Saturday’s B-Main. It is possible to overcome a bad draw at the Knoxville Nationals, but it leaves very little room for mistakes. It is the biggest sprint car race in the world, and it shouldn’t be easy to win it.