T.J.’s Notebook: Long List of Contenders for the 60th Knoxville Nationals Title

Kyle Larson. (Mike Campbell photo)

2021 Knoxville Nationals

Each season immediately after wrapping our Kings Royal coverage I start to get serious about breaking down who will be the favorites to win the Knoxville Nationals. Normally I can make a case for two or three drivers going into the event as clearly defined favorites. I feel the 2021 Knoxville Nationals is as wide open as I’ve seen in my previous 15 trips to the Nationals.

the World of Outlaws contenders…

I could make a compelling argument for any of the top six in the World of Outlaws point standings, Brad Sweet, Carson Macedo, David Gravel, Donny Schatz, and Sheldon Haudenschild.

Sweet has the most victories this season with the World of Outlaws, 14, which is double of the trio with the second most wins this season with the series. The 2018 Knoxville Nationals champion has a big race win at the Don Martin Memorial Silver Cup at Lernerville Speedway and was leading the Kings Royal before suffering a flat timre.

Carson Macedo and Jason Johnson Racing are always a formidable foe at Knoxville. With Phillip Dietz turning the wrenches, Macedo has had speed at Knoxville since he first sat in JJR entry in 2018.

David Gravel is the defending champion of the Nationals and looked stout on his way to victory at the Capitani Classic on Sunday. Gravel clearly has figured out Knoxville Raceway and could put himself in rare air by winning Nationals titles with two different car owners.

Schatz would be the biggest stretch with just a single World of Outlaws victory to his credit. I’ve always felt you don’t come to Nationals and “flip the switch” to start winning, but when it’s a former 10-time winner I find it difficult to discount Schatz as a potential threat.

I have a similar opinion of Sheldon Haudenschild going into Nationals week. Haudenschild has seven wins this season, but has also put himself in situations throughout the season that have cost him victories. If Haudenschild can hold speed and avoid some of the pitfalls that have plagued the team throughout the year it could lead to a Nationals victory.

Brad Sweet is still the odds-on favorite among the Outlaws to win the Nationals this year and leads the series with 14 feature victories. Sweet has double the number of wins of any other team on tour. After rambling off three straight wins leading into the Kings Royal he has visited victory lane once at Lernerville Speedway during the Don Martin Memorial Silver Cup.

The non-Outlaw contenders…

This list starts with none other than Kyle Larson. Larson won the “one and only” in 2020 at Knoxville Raceway and has been a runner up at the Nationals driving for Paul Silva. Larson has been on a tear the past season and a half winning races at a torrid pace no matter what type of car he has driven.

Coming off a victory at the Kings Royal, the Prairie Dirt Classic, and the most recent NASCAR Cup Race at Watkins Glen International Speedway Larson will look to add a Knoxville Nationals title to his crowded mantle.

Larson will have to deal with NASCAR duties during the weekend that includes more on track activity for the road course race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One difference from 2019 is Larson will try to qualify on Thursday night, leaving Wednesday for his charity kart outing at Slideways Karting Center (no relation). Look for Larson to be extremely sharp during his preliminary night Thursday.

Brent Marks has been extremely fast since returning to his family owned #19 entry. Marks has nine feature wins this season including two victories with the World of Outlaws. The only thing left to speculate is if Mark’s speed will translate to the black dirt of the Marion County Fairgrounds.

Kerry Madsen has surged driving the Tony Stewart Racing #14 entry. Madsen has two wins at Knoxville Raceway driving for TSR this season and has shown speed everywhere they have competed. With Ricky Warner in his corner could this be the year Madsen breaks through for the elusive Knoxville Nationals title he has come very close to winning in years past?

Brian Brown may not have made this list had I written this story in June. Brown was fast, but I didn’t feel had the speed to be a Knoxville Nationals contender. Brown felt changes were needed and long-time crew chief Chad Morgan was relieved of his duties and his uncle, former Knoxville Nationals winner Danny Lasoski, was brought in. Since Lasoski has come on board Brown has shown improvement, including an eye-opening heat race win Sunday at the Capitani Classic.

One of the keys for Brown will be avoiding some of the unusual problems during his preliminary night that have put his team out of contention.

Gio Scelzi has propelled himself into position to enter the discussion as well. Won the 360 Nationals, proper trajectory leading into Nationals getting faster. Scelzi with Bernie Stuebgen are peeking at the right time. With a 360 Nationals title already in their pocket this week, they could upset the apple cart on Saturday night.

This might be one of the most interesting lead ins to Nationals I can remember. With this many teams to consider as possible winners of the Nationals title, it should be a joy to witness and write about throughout the week.