By MIKE MALLETT
KNOXVILLE, IA – Brad Sweet had one dream in life, to add his name to the history books as a Knoxville Nationals winner. Each year that mission starts in February and continues until the finale on Saturday night. Until this year, he’d never been able to have that dream become reality.
Well as they say, dreams to do come true. Sweet’s came true as he beat the best in sprint car racing today in Kyle Larson and Donny Schatz. Both threw everything at Sweet, but he held firm never giving up. At the end no one had to pinch him, it wasn’t a dream. He is now a Knoxville Nationals champion.
“It feels surreal,” stated Sweet afterwards. “I’ve been dreaming about this, working hard for it. I’ve been close in years past, but to hold off these guys, the two best in the country. It took every ounce of my being to beat them so it feels great. My name will be etched into the Knoxville Nationals history book forever and that’s what every sprint car driver dreams about when they are little. A dream came true for me.”
Sweet puts everything into winning Knoxville. His focus year in and year out is on finding a way to win. He’s spent hours watching videos studying how others have won. He also takes notes at every track he can. He learns as much about the car as he can in order to improve for Knoxville. At the end, that all paid off.
“I’ll run second in every race as long as I can win the Knoxville Nationals I don’t really care,” mentioned Sweet. “It’s all about this race. This for me is what we prepare for as a team, as a driver. I start thinking about this race after I leave Volusia (Speedway Park). I start taking notes on what’s going to work at Knoxville this year because you only get to run so many half-miles that are kind of relatable to here.”
Sweet started from the pole due to his utter dominance during the week. He won nearly everything he entered. The only thing he didn’t win was his heat race on qualifying night at Knoxville. His car had more drive off than anyone on the bottom of the speedway. He also excelled on restarts.
“If I was going to win I needed to be able to hit the bottom,” cited Sweet. “That is something that I’ve studied over the years is this guy here (Donny Schatz). He has won a lot of races by having a car that can go all over the race track. For about two to three years I’ve studied and tried to run different parts of the race track.
“When we got here this weekend we hit on something that really made my car run through the bottom and middle really good. I was nervous if it went away I wouldn’t be fast enough on the top, but that’s part of the game. You just got be prepared to move around.”
Sweet was tested by both of the best during the A-Main. The first challenge came from his soon to be brother-in-law Larson. Larson actually passed Sweet. He led two laps before Sweet was able to regroup and get his car rolling again.
“I messed up so bad,” said Sweet. “There were a couple of holes out there that had been there all weekend. I was trying to get my entry out a little bit more in one to get more speed across the center. I would catch a hole every now and then. I couldn’t really see it, but I knew I had to be lower on the race track and I caught it a few times. It would really upset the car. It would kind of get me sideways and I would scrub a lot of speed when I did that. I did it two or three times so I kind of made sure I didn’t hit it anymore, but I knew when I messed up that somebody would be coming on the top. I saw he was running the top so I tried to buckle down and adjust my line a little bit. I could tell I was still faster because even with a couple mistakes I was still closing in on him. I wanted to get that lead back, for sure. I didn’t want to lose it.”
His second and final test came with two laps remaining as the red was necessary for a flipping Kerry Madsen. On the restart Schatz pulled to his outside for the final two laps. Schatz worked the outside with Sweet focusing on the bottom. He hit it perfectly with Schatz close, but not close enough to steal the win.
“I could hear Donny on my outside,” stated Sweet. “I hit the bottom 75 so times so what was two more. I didn’t need to hit it at full speed, I hit it at three-quarter. I made sure I was on the exit. The exit is the biggest part. As long as you getting off the straightaway with speed I knew I was okay. It could have went either way, but I’m glad I’m sitting right there.”
As the race ended with Sweet in the lead the crowd erupted when he crossed the line. As he pulled into the victory lane the place was electric with excitement for Sweet and company. The ‘Anybody but Schatz’ contingent had gotten their way with Sweet winning. The moment meant a ton to Sweet.
“Everything about this race is extremely special,” commented Sweet. “In our sport, our world, the Knoxville Nationals, Donny has won it so many times, but there is a short list of guys that have won it because it seems like the best drivers always really dominant here. It’s a really hard race to win. It’s a really tough race track. Everyone really rises to the next level when they get here. Everything that just happened to me is what I strived for my whole life, my whole career. This means the world to me.”