By T.J. Buffenbarger
I wrote coming into the 61st Knoxville Nationals that I felt that this year’s edition was as wide open as any I have attended regarding who could win the event. Thursday strengthened that position, which will be reflected below in my takeaways following the preliminary programs are now in the books:
• Shark Racing success at Knoxville for Logan Schuchart was somewhat expected based on his performance earlier in the year at Knoxville, but Jacob Allen found his moment in the spotlight as Shark Racing took another step forward that seemed improbable back in 2014 when what was a rag tag operation set out on the road hoping to survive just enough to get to the next race.
Allen, who didn’t have nearly the seat time that Schuchart before going on the road, has developed enough over the past two season to make Shark Racing a two headed threat on any given night on the World of Outlaws tour. Allen’s overflowing emotion in victory lane made this one of the more popular victories during a preliminary night in recent memory, even among his fellow competitors. It was the payoff for all the work Allen has put in and the massive steps forward he has taken as a driver over the past two seasons.
While Shark Racing’s task of winning the Knoxville Nationals is a tall order with Allen starting further back in the pack and Schuchart having to run Saturday’s B-Main to attempt to transfer to the finale, but Saturday is another landmark moment for the little team that has gone toe to toe with some of the biggest in sprint car racing on the sport’s biggest traveling stage.
For fans of a certain vintage seeing Allen pull a car into victory lane that was patterned after Bobby Allen’s 1991 Knoxville Nationals winning livery waxes nostalgia and added some extra emotion to the moment. It seems appropriate that the paint scheme ends up in victory lane Thursday at Knoxville capping off a sweep of the preliminary features representing the biggest underdog victory in Nationals history as Shark Racing takes a big step forward from underdog to perennial contender.
• Knoxville Raceway had a standout night from their weekly competitors, but they were not from the ones I anticipated. Going into the event my focus was on Brian Brown and Aaron Reutzel. While Reutzel locked in with the 16th and final position available in the A-Main based on points with his performance on Wednesday, Brown’s efforts were sunk during qualifying when his car looked like it was entering turn three at Terre Haute without the wing rather than Knoxville Raceway with it. Credit Brown though for racing the night out rather than packing it in and waiting for Friday and will likely be highly motivated in that Hard Knox program tomorrow to score one of those four transfer positions.
Austin McCarl took the banner for the Knoxville regulars and hoisted it all the way to the top of the flagpole earning the pole position for the biggest sprint car race on the planet. In a year where chaos has been the theme, McCarl put together a solid night including avoiding the pitfall of qualifying well and not transferring through his heat race. That steadiness resulted in an explosion of emotion that left Terry McCarl almost speechless (an accomplishment in itself) as a proud father and his mother Lori still with tears of joy long after the checkered flag fell.
Then we have J.J. Hickle, who has focused his efforts at Knoxville Raceway this season and turned in an outstanding performance in qualifying along with driving from sixth to the lead in his heat race to avoid the craziness of this year’s Nationals and lock himself into the feature. Hickle was likely not on many people’s radars for making the main event, but this year is one of the trio of Knoxville regulars that defied the prognosticators and put his car in the main.
To cap off the craziest Nationals in history we had Tasker Phillips making his first Nationals A-Main of his career. Often known for spectacular moments not on the list that lands one in the Nationals A-Main, Phillips continued his development taking his family owned team toe to toe with the biggest in the business setting fast time in qualifying, going tow to tow in a spectacular race for position with one of the greatest race car drivers on the planet in Kyle Larson, and then showing maturity in a moment that at one point might have been too big for Phillips to handle running a solid feature to accomplish his dream of locking into the Saturday night finale of the Knoxville Nationals.
The regular fans at Knoxville Raceway should be extremely proud of how the home team has performed at this year’s Nationals.
• The 2022 Knoxville Nationals rookie class is going to be looked upon 10 years from now as one of the best in recent event history. Justin Sanders and Buddy Kofoid are locked into Saturday’s A-Main, appropriately starting next to each other in row seven.
Cole Macedo secured a spot in Saturday’s B-Main based on his Tuesday night performance with limited laps on half-mile racetracks, let alone Knoxville Raceway.
Corey Day will have to come back on Friday after missing out on locking into Saturday’s B-Main by a single point.
This quartet of California kids are going to move the needle in whatever racing discipline they end up in as their career. Fans at this year’s Knoxville Nationals will be able to say one day that they saw this important, early stage in their career and seem all of them raising their stock by their first-time performances at the Knoxville Nationals.
• After one of the most unpredictable nights of racing in Knoxville Nationals history on Wednesday that caused hot takes about overhauling the format to spread like wildfire, it turns out that once you run two nights of racing at the Knoxville Nationals the top 16 drivers in points are the teams that performed the best every time their car hit the racetrack.
Thursday saw a much more conventional result with six of the top 10 qualifiers making the feature through their heat race or the B-Main. There was still an interesting trend of spots 21-40 being the sweet spot for drivers that transferred through their heat race, but once again that seemed to correlate to the track falling off later in the qualifying order.
After a non-stop 25-lap feature that had a three car race for the lead that came down to the final lap all the hot take artists owe the Knoxville Raceway track prep crew a cold beverage for bouncing back and producing an excellent racing surface for Thursday’s program.