By T.J. Buffenbarger
(August 10, 2022) — After one of the most unusual nights of racing I have witnessed in my 27 years of coming to the Knoxville Nationals here is my takeaways from the Wednesday night preliminary program.
• The unusual events that triggered only two of the top 20 qualifiers to transfer out of their heat races was not the result of a single thing. It was a series of crazy events combined with the toughest format in sprint car racing that caused one of the biggest shake ups we have seen with the event points.
While roaming the pit area before Wednesday night’s program I had a couple of crew chiefs tell me they felt the track was going to fall off quickly for qualifying based on what they witnessed during the 360 Nationals. This proved to be accurate as of the top 20 in qualifying only two drivers went out later than 30th, Marcus Dumesny went out 31st and was 20th quick while Cory Eliason was 16th fast after going out 46th. This created a log jam of very talented drivers with fast equipment from 21st to 40th in qualifying. Only two of the drivers that qualified from 21st to 40th failed to transfer through their heat race.
The unusual thing about the fall off during the qualifying was the the fact it did happen based on the length of time it took to run in the track at the beginning of the night. Trucks were out on the track for an extended period ironing in the racing surface well after engine heat was completed, and after that it took a while in hot laps for the track to pick up speed. I would have expected it to be faster for a longer period of time during qualifying, but that turned out to not be the case.
After qualifying track officials ran push trucks around the top and took the tillers to the bottom to help try to get that portion of the track worked in. It did not appear to as Donny Schatz bluntly talked about the track not being fully run in and racing extremely narrow on Wednesday until later in the program. The result was a bottom that was so good at one point in the B-Main that I mentioned during our updates that I couldn’t recall seeing more cars running down there at the same time at Knoxville other than when the track took rubber. The track did have moments of widening out a little during the fifth heat race, but for most of the night did not do anyone competing any favors.
The other factor in why so many drivers in the top 20 did not transfer through their heat races had to do with the people that were in those positions. After the second heat race I started tracking transfers and below is what I came up with. The drivers highlighted in yellow transferred through the heat races and blue highlighted drivers transferred through the B-Main.
If you look at this list objectively it is not difficult to see a trend. There were some heavy hitting cars in positions 21-40 and several drivers in the top 20 that were surprises to be that far towards the top of the qualifying rundown. When it came to heat races, it was going to be a tall task for those drives to chase down the drivers that ended up mid-pack in qualifying because they are often the ones you would expect to be near the top of qualifications.
The Knoxville Raceway track crew gets it right more than they get it wrong, and I would consider this an isolated incident. The weekly Knoxville programs are “must watch” events for me. Even when I’m at another racetrack and can vouch for those programs producing entertaining racing. The same goes for the Nationals not seeing anything like this in 27 years of going to Knoxville. I have full confidence that we won’t see a repeat of Wednesday night the remainder of the week.
At the end of the night the hot takes about upending the format or bagging on the track crew is \premature and could be classified as a streaming hot take I consider to be overboard. After all, the Knoxville Nationals pays a purse over $1,000,000, it is not supposed to be easy to win.
• The fallout from such low scores in the point standings will be interesting to track throughout tomorrow’s preliminary program at Knoxville.
During the past two Knoxville Nationals Giovanni Scelzi and Aaron Reutzel earned the pole positions for Saturday’s A-Main by scoring 487 points. The cutoff in 2020 for the 16 cars locked into the A-Main was 449 and 2019 it was 451 points.
That is why we witnessed the most diverse trio of drivers to score a podium since the last time we ran the traditional Friday night program where the reward for winning the main event is to start 11th in the C-Main.
Donny Schatz and David Gravel’s score of 469 points would have put them around 10th in the lineup for Saturday’s A-Main last year.
Unless we have a repeat of this same situation tomorrow night, I could see 12 to 13 drivers locking into Saturday night’s main event through that program and bump some of Wednesday’s top 10 points drives to the B-Main event.
Typically, I don’t look at the points until after the B-Main on a preliminary night but will likely be doing some of the same tracking I did on Wednesday to keep up on if there are major differences between the two preliminary programs.
• The trio of California drivers Justin Sanders, Cole Macedo, and Corey Day made impressive debuts in Knoxville Nationals competition on Wednesday.
Sanders qualifying third fastest overall after going out 17th was very impressive. Backing that up with holding onto the final transfer spot in the B-Main before charging from 24th starting position to 15th in the feature was a solid debut and ended up the highest in points of the trio at the end of the night in fifth position and should at least have a solid B-Main starting position for Saturday.
Macedo qualified 22nd but transferred through his heat race and was running in a podium position before dropping back during the later stages of the feature, scoring an 8th place finish in only his second start at Knoxville. There was some that believed Macedo would not produce a decent showing due to his lack of experience on bigger racetracks, but with legendary crew chief Phllip Dietz help stewarding his effort Macedo proved to be up for the challenge and in my eyes increased his stock considerably so far based on his two starts at Knoxville.
Day continued his trajectory of improvement at the Marion County Fairgrounds half-mile oval overcoming his 32nd best qualifying effort to win his heat race and finished 9th in the main event.
It is exciting to see this young trio have such a good showing at the Knoxville Nationals and makes me look forward to seeing what is next for these young men in our sport.