T.J.’s Takeaways from the 60th Knoxville Nationals

Kyle Larson participating in a toast with the fans after winning the 2021 Knoxville Natioanls. (Mark Funderburk photo)

By T.J. Buffenbarger

(August 14, 2021) — After walking away from the Marion County Fairgrounds for the last time in 2021 things are being moved out of the Marion County Fairgrounds and the Dingus Lounge is still serving for a couple of more minutes, here are my takeaways from Saturday night.

• The biggest challenge about covering Kyle Larson in sprint car racing is coming up with new and creative ways to describe how talented he is. Larson is the preeminent talent in motorsports today who’s talent doesn’t seem to have any boundaries.

Larson had to work for his first Nationals title having to pass Donny Schatz in the first half of the race before having to hold off a late race charge from Schatz for the victory. Having to pass and hold off a 10 time Nationals champion just adds to the accomplishment of Larson winning the Nationals.

While there are some people in the sport that are tired of all the attention being on Larson, he grabs the attention of a lot of people that wouldn’t normally be following the Knoxville Nationals.

The best moment I saw from Saturday was Larson coming over to give his Dad a hug in the press room following Larson’s media duties. As passionate about sprint car racing as Mike Larson is, I can’t imagine the pride he had on Saturday night seeing his son win the biggest race in the sport. I’m sure the smile won’t be wiped off Mike’s face for a week or two following that triumph.

• While Kyle Larson was the big winner at the Knoxville Nationals, the biggest winner in the public relations department at Knoxville was Roth Motorsports. After the entire Aaron Reutzel “stickergate” situation with assorted fines and suspensions putting Kasey Kahne in the car for the week seemed like a great PR move no matter what happened on the racetrack.

The icing on the cake was Kahne was a strong performer all week locking himself into Saturday’s A-Main the hard way by having to come through the B-Main on his preliminary night. Kahne topped things off with a solid eighth place finish in the main event.

Roth Motorsports could not have asked for a better bounce back from that situation than the races Kahne gave the team at Oskaloosa and Knoxville on the sport’s biggest stage.

Kahne also had long lines of adoring fans waiting to visit with him after every race night. Having Kahne as an owner and working on his cars is great for the sport, but when he’s behind the wheel that positive for the sport is magnified. Hopefully Kahne can back up his performance at Knoxville with more frequent starts during the remainder of the 2021 season.

• Typically, a track taking rubber is the end of any hope of having good racing. There were a lot of people that were surprised, including some of the drivers, that Knoxville Raceway took rubber towards the end of the Knoxville Nationals finale on Saturday, especially since track work was done before the start of the main event.

Saturday was a rare occasion where the rubber may have helped the race. The first half of the 50 lap feature crescendoed into a great race for the lead between Kyle Larson and Donny Schatz that had some of the wind taken out of it when the caution flag appeared on lap 26 for the halfway break.

Larson dominated a good portion of the second half of the feature until the rubber came into play, which allowed Donny Schatz to close in on Larson and get a couple of shots at him for the lead, including one on the last lap that kept Larson more than honest in route to his first Nationals victory.

• What might have been for Carson Macedo had he not been the catalyst for the big crash during Thursday’s preliminary feature event. Instead of being locked into the A-Main, Macedo had to transfer out the B-Main and put and extra 22 laps of wear and tear on his equipment before running the 50 lap finale.

Macedo ended up driving through the field from 21st starting position up to 9th, but I can’t help but wonder how close to the front Macedo would have been in those closing laps with Jason Johnson Racing’s history of running well at Knoxville.

• There is no other event in our sport like the Knoxville Nationals. You could start with a blank sheet and checkbook and not be able to duplicate the things that make the event so special. From the small town that welcomes the event with open arms, people opening their homes for race fans to stay at, the festival type atmosphere, and all the other great things that surround the actual racing is what makes the event special.

Throw in the great racing with all the wonderful things and it makes for an event like no other. All too often promoters try to make an event into something “big” without trying to grow it organically. The Knoxville Nationals grew into its stature organically by producing an event people wanted to see over a long period of time.

It was another great week to spend in Knoxville even if it was stressful with storm damage at home, storm related outages at my day job that ate up huge chunks of time I’d normally spend covering and enjoying at the Nationals during the day, and I still managed to have a great time and can’t wait to cover the event again in 2022.