By MIKE MALLETT
All the talk and hype leading into the finale of the 57th running of the Knoxville Nationals was about David Gravel. Gravel had the fans pumped as they believed that they had finally found their “Schatz Killer.” That phrase was heard echoing throughout the Knoxville Raceway the last two days leading up the finale. The one person who didn’t hear it was Donny Schatz.
Schatz chased Gravel for the first 22 laps before mechanical woes dropped Gravel from the race handing the lead to Schatz. Schatz survived a slider from Kerry Madsen, a race track with character, lapped traffic and a hard charging Kyle Larson to score his 10th win Sprint Car racing’s biggest event. It was another $150,000 triumph for the man from Fargo, N.D.
“It’s been a hell of a streak,” said Schatz in the post-race press conference. “It’s hard to put it in perspective. Someone always ask how or why, I don’t have a why. I think it comes, when you come here your first time, you respect the place so much. I think all them second places before I won it changed the whole dynamic of it for me in that what it means to be able to be in this position and the group of guys I get to race with. There is hardly anyone in Sprint Car racing or any type of racing that gets to spend 10 years racing with the same group of people and you can keep building on that.”
From there Schatz credited his crew chief Ricky Warner with making the right calls on the car all night long. That put him in the position to once again triumph at the Knoxville Nationals.
“Me and Ricky we argue, fight, we do a lot of things, we’ve been arguing since last night, but we understand each other when it comes to this,” cited Schatz. “He knows me and he knows how to read me. He knows what to change for these conditions and at that place. I think that has a lot to do with being in this position.”
Schatz watched as Gravel jumped out to a commanding lead in the first third of the race. Gravel blasted his CJB Motorsports car off the top side, powering through the rough stuff to keep Schatz at bay. The ever patient Schatz stayed within striking distance, pulled a slider in an attempt to wrestle the lead from Gravel only to have him drive back by. Then heartbreak hit Gravel as his car blew out a small puff of smoke before coasting to a stop in turn four to give the lead to Schatz. Schatz wasn’t sure what happened but it made him mindful of the track and how he needed to race it.
“I didn’t know it was really like that,” mentioned Schatz about how tricky the track surface in turns three and four. “At the beginning of the race David (Gravel) was going so hard we were really running through there at full throttle and you didn’t really notice it until you started lifting. On the yellow, I was like man that’s right in the center of the corner its pretty deep there. If a guy hits that wrong it’s going to launch you into the fence. You become a little more aware of it. He hit it pretty good a couple of times. He was in air a good eight, ten inches a few times. I don’t know if that’s what caused him to have something break. I tried to hit it before I got there and kind of skip over it. I hit it a few times, but for the most part it comes down to the race car. The guys did a phenomenal job. They got the right right rear shock on there to be able get through that stuff; to get stuck before we got to that point. They are the ones that got me in that position.”
The break came as a caution was displayed on lap 24 with Terry McCarl catching the wall and pulling a banner onto the track. Everyone made adjustments and was pushed back off. On the green flag Kerry Madsen followed Schatz down the frontstretch before dive bombing to the bottom then to the cushion in an attempt to get the lead. Schatz stayed on the hammer and went four wheels over the cushion to drive back around Madsen to stay in front.
“If Kerry had gotten by that would have been the race,” commented Schatz. “It was really hard to get around the top. There really wasn’t a lot on the bottom. In the B-Main you saw guys could get a really good start then dive down across there and there was enough moisture to get out in front of someone. If I hit it right and got to the cushion quick enough I could keep my momentum. Kerry went for it. I guess I had a decision. I was either going to go for it and try to continue in the position I was in or we were going to get close. I think we got close, but we didn’t get that close. I think we’ve been a lot closer and not hit each other. That’s what racing is. You are talking about it right now. That’s what makes it fun. He had to try it and I had to keep going and try to stay back in front.”
Schatz quickly motored away as Larson snuck around Madsen to take second. Larson chased Schatz. He was able to keep pace. He was always within striking distance had Schatz made a mistake. With the laps clicking close to the end Schatz faced the traffic challenge. He made a couple of moves through the middle that broke his momentum allowing Larson to close in.
“With about 12 to go I thought we were going to hit the end of the field and it got to be eight or nine,” stated the pilot of the Tony Stewart Racing No. 15. “I thought, man I need to push the issue here and I went to slide a lapped car and he kept going and it kind of killed my momentum. I knew I had to get back up there and just keep going. I had no prayer going to the bottom. I did what I could. It worked.”
It wasn’t over yet as Larson quickly cut the gap pulling to within a few car lengths of Schatz. On the final lap Larson went for it all on the bottom as he tried to pull a slide job of his own. He didn’t have enough space to get up in front of Schatz.
“I seen coming to the checker there in three that Kyle must have tried a slider and didn’t quite have enough to get by,” he said. “I was just fortunate that I made the right decisions. It was pretty hairy a couple of times. The race track was kind of tricky on the lip. It had a few spots where it was kind of chunked out and you had to hit it just right. Some points we hit it at the right time and sometimes I put myself in a bad spot and got us in a killing momentum position.”
Schatz was nothing but complimentary of the driver known as “Young Money” afterwards. It was evident earlier in the week that they have a close relationship as Schatz carried Larson’s son Owen into the press conference on Wednesday night after finishing second to him. He was happy to be on the other side of it this time.
“I think if we look at the stats though, the last 10 times I’ve raced Kyle he’s beaten me,” stated Schatz. “So at least I got on the right spectrum today. He’s phenomenal in these cars and I wish he could run them more. There is a bigger fan base that obviously wants him as well. We’re glad we get our portion of it. Hopefully he can win the race in Michigan tomorrow.”
He came home second last year, but on August 12, 2017, Donny Schatz proved once again to the Nationals faithful that he’s still the man to beat at the Knoxville Nationals.