By MIKE MALLETT
For the second consecutive year a driver was able to pull off the clean sweep at the Knoxville Nationals. In 2018, Brad Sweet won the Capitani Classic to open up the week, then his qualifying night before claiming his first $150,000 Knoxville Raceway triumph. In 2019, David Gravel matched that feat.
The Watertown, Conn., had his confidence grow all week long before he capped it off with a win in the crown jewel of Sprint Car racing. It was his best career run in the Knoxville Nationals. They found something they liked in the car with his Jason Johnson Racing No. 41 and stuck with it. It worked.
“I always have confidence here, but to win the Capitani and your prelim night makes you feel really good about yourself honestly,” said Gravel. “It’s a confidence booster. Really all three nights we had the car pretty similar. We hit on something and kept rolling with that. That’s so huge.
“When you are searching and trying different things trying to land on something you just don’t know in that A-Main. I’ve been there before where we are good on our prelim night and don’t have it on Saturday in the A-Main. You try to make it better at the break and make it worse. Luckily, we had good balance.”
Gravel has been on the front row before, had success early in the week before, but Saturday night was his first taste of success at the Knoxville Nationals. His best finish prior to weekend was a 10th.
“I put myself in position a lot of times after prelim nights and never had a good run to show for it,” commented Gravel. “My best finish was 10th. I feel like I’ve always been pretty good here, but have no results Saturday night. Obviously, the JJR 41 gets around here pretty good and it shows. Phil (Dietz) did a great job. It is a dream week. I’m numb right now. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
The team made some small mistakes leading up to Saturday night. They had a shock fall off the car in the Capitani Classic before being off on the stagger a tad on qualifying night. Saturday night there were no hiccups. There was focus and attention to detail. Details are important. In the past, with other teams, things were overlooked and Gravel had part failures derail his efforts, but not this time.
“We had a shock fall off at the Capitani,” mentioned Gravel. “You just don’t know what can happen. The boys crossed their T’s and dotted their I’s to make sure we didn’t have any of that happen. We had stagger issues on our prelim night and we made sure we checked everything out 110 percent to make sure our car was going to be the same from the beginning to end. They did a great job.”
At the start of the 50-lap event, Gravel fell back to third after starting on the outside of the front row. He kept pace with pole-sitter Aaron Reutzel and row two starter Joey Saldana. As they battled it out, Gravel settled in just lurking behind them for an opening. He got Saldana on lap 10 before making a run at Reutzel two laps later in turns three and four on the outside to take the lead for good.
“I got a bad jump,” mentioned Gravel. “We were detuned a little bit. In hot laps I didn’t feel very fast around the top. The track was a little fast early on. I didn’t get too excited. I knew if we fell back to fourth or fifth it would be hard to battle back up there and try and contend for the win. I think I had a good restart and got by Joey.
“Then Aaron didn’t know where to run in three and four. He was running bottom and top, sliding himself and I was able to commit to the top and get some good runs on him. It all worked out. I just let the race come to me.”
Once out front, Gravel picked his way through traffic methodically. Things were a tad easier in the first 25 laps then the second. That’s when things got crazy in front of him. As drivers diced for positions they got more and more aggressive with their moves. The cushion was the dominant line for most drivers with slide jobs common.
Grave was looking to keep his composure while keeping the lead. He did everything perfectly and for the first time in his career, there wasn’t any bad luck to take away Knoxville Nationals glory.
“I thought stuff was going to get hairy there a couple of times,” joked Gravel. “The 18 (Ian Madsen) hit the wall. Then the 09 (Matt Juhl) just about spun out in front of me. I knew I was losing times on those laps. I didn’t know if Daryn (Pittman) was close at that point or not, but it was definitely a little sketchy. I was able to recover fairly well and put those guys behind me. There were definitely some close calls, that’s for sure.
“You don’t know what’s going on, it’s 25 straight laps and no yellows. You don’t know if they are close or not, I just had to keep rolling. I think I set a pace where I was under control until I got to lapped traffic then I kind of turned it up in traffic. I felt like I was really good in three and four and kind of maintained in turns one and two. I knew I had a little bit more in the tank, but I didn’t want to burn myself out early. It’s a long race. I’m happy it held up and I didn’t make any big mistakes.”
He didn’t burn out, he didn’t make mistakes and the car stayed together for all 50-laps for the first time in his career. And it’s not shock, that for the first time in his career he’ll leave the State of Iowa a Knoxville Nationals Champion.