T.J.’s Notebook: Wide Open Nationals

By T.J. Buffenbarger

(August 10, 20220 The term wide open in motorsports is used to describe being able to hold down the throttle all the way around the race track. Coming into the 61st Knoxville Nationals I am using it to describe the pool of potential winners of the biggest event in sprint car racing. Over the past couple of weeks I have written and re-written the post with event prognostications several times. Of all the years coming to Knoxville this is the first time I’ve arrived in Iowa without a strong feeling of a potential winner.

2022 has been the year of “comers and goers” in winged sprint car racing. Many of the drivers you would expect to be a favorite to win the Nationals have had spurts of running and not running well or have been remarkably consistent to place themselves at the top of the point standings but may not have the feature wins we have seen to their credit in past years.

Typically, I would fill this space with one to three drivers I feel have the best shot to win the Nationals. After a few weeks of thought and more events to draw from I’ve narrowed my focus on who will win the Nationals going into the event to at least a handful of drivers.

This conversation must start with Brent Marks. With a victory earlier in the year at Knoxville Raceway along with taking $275,000 out of Eldora Speedway in July taking the bold strategy of sitting out the weekend before the Kings Royal weekend and a day show on Saturday before the finale to make sure his team was fresh.

Marks has brought the same strategy to Knoxville remaining idle after the All Star Circuit of Champions program on July 30th passing on the Capitani Classic and Front Row Challenge to warm up for the Nationals. Seeing if this approach works leading into the biggest sprint car race on the planet is a storyline I will be following.

If Marks doesn’t sweep the Kings Royal weekend this story likely would lead off with the defending champion of the 2022 Knoxville Nationals, Kyle Larson. Larson’s six victories so far this season in open wheel competition is behind his pace from the past couple of years but has still shown speed this year.

Marks’ fellow Pennsylvania driver Anthony Macri is the leading feature winner in the country but won’t get as much discussion as a potential Nationals champion. That is on the trajectory to change as Macri made his first Nationals A-Main last year, finishing 17th and has Bernie Stuebgen turning wrenches this week at Nationals. Stuebgen is known for having good race cars at Knoxville and mixed with Macri’s daring driving style could produce some exciting Nationals moments.

After struggling during the 360 Knoxville Nationals last week Larson and car owner/crew chief Paul Silva bounced back with a dominating performance at Southern Iowa Speedway during the Front Row Challenge on Monday.

The biggest challenge could come in travel between Knoxville and Larson’s NASCAR commitments during Nationals. With the NASCAR Cup Series at Richmond International Speedway in Richmond, Virginia, the travel back and forth has more logistical challenges than in past years where Larson was commuting to and from Indianapolis or Michigan.

Another driver that has speed at Knoxville and a team behind him with past success at the Nationals is Carson Macedo. Crew chief Phillip Dietz will look to put his third driver in victory lane at the Nationals with Carson and brother Cole Macedo running for rookie of the year honors. Macedo has shown speed at Knoxville this year. On May 7th during a weekly 410 program, I commented how well Macedo’s car was driving off turn two and looked like the kind of performance that makes him a favorite to win the event.

I feel Donny Schatz has his best chance to win a Knoxville Nationals title since 2015 with some of his recent performances. Schatz seemed to be clicking on Sunday at the Capitani Cassic sniffing around the front and showed some ability to move around the racetrack as we have seen during his best performances at the Marion County Fairgrounds. Schatz and the Tony Stewart Racing team have seemingly built momentum since the Kings Royal weekend and I expect that to carry over to the podium on Saturday at Knoxville, possibly even placing Schatz on the top step.

Brad Sweet and David Gravel have been amazingly consistent throughout the season with the World of Outlaws, but feature wins have not come easy this year for either driver. Over the past month and a half though both drivers have picked up the pace with Gravel scoring three wins since July 13th and Sweet picking up two of his three victories this season in the past 30 days. The question becomes does that amazing consistency translate into flipping the switch to win the Saturday night’s feature at Knoxville.

Sheldon Haudenschild has seven feature wins to his credit, but during Kings Royal weekend was unable to crack the top 10 during the four nights of racing and has not been to victory lane since June 25th. I’m typically a believer that you don’t flip the switch coming to the Nationals and start winning but based on Haudenschild’s hot start to the season it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in contention on Saturday.

The Knoxville local contingent has two top contenders in Brian Brown and Aaron Reutzel.

Brown has four wins to his credit his year at Knoxville including a victory with the World of Outlaws in June. Brown is also coming off a rough night at the Capitani Classic where he ended up flipping during his heat race and was unable to make the main event. Brown at times has shown the same kind of speed that brought him close to victory at Knoxville on a couple of occasions.

Reutzel will be on a mission after missing the 2022 Knoxville Nationals due to a suspension for a major technical infraction. Attempting to become the first person to win the 360 and 410 Knoxville Nationals in the same season, Reutzel will look to keep the $175,000 top prize in his adopted hometown of Knoxville. Reutzel has been flying under the radar with his effort centered around racing at Knoxville this season but is still one of the most aggressive and talented drivers in the pit area.

If any of the drivers mentioned in this collection were to win the Knoxville Nationals, it would not surprise me. I expect the two preliminary nights to be the most intense we have seen in recent years due to the number of drivers that have found success this year and how some have gotten hot and faded throughout the season. I believe all of us are in for a treat to see how the 2022 edition is going to shake out.