By MIKE MALLETT
Donny Schatz has set a high-bar. He’s a 10-time Knoxville Nationals winner, a 10-time World of Outlaw Series Champion and a member of the exclusive 300 wins club with the series, but 2021 has not been his year.
Schatz has struggled with consistency and has not had the speed necessary at times to contend during big money events. That changed at Knoxville. The Schatz that was a dominant force at Knoxville reemerged.
On Saturday night Schatz was in position for the win barely coming up short to the hottest driver in the country in Kyle Larson. It wasn’t a win, but it showed that, even though people have written him off, he’s not done. He’s the same guy that dominated the seen for so many years.
“When you get the tires caught up a certain way, I know what we are capable of, what it takes to pass cars and be in a good spot,” said Schatz. “I know what I want to feel. We just haven’t been able to get that where we are close enough to where we are able to change with the pace of the race as it changes. The guys have taken some pretty big swings at it and they’ve done a good job with it. There is still some room for improvement.
“Tony (Stewart) is dedicated to doing what it takes to get me the feel that I want. You take confidence in that. If the car owner stands behind you and the guys do, sometimes you just have to weather the storm. When the storm passes you reap the rewards.”
Schatz bolted to second at the start of the race and from there hounded the leader Gio Scelzi. Scelzi kept Schatz at bay until lap 11 in traffic as Schatz went to the bottom to get by him. He kept the top spot before Larson shot by him on lap 25. A lap later, Schatz was passing Larson back for the lead off the top of turn two when the yellow came out leaving him second at the break.
“I just went where he wasn’t,” cited Schatz. “He passed me on the bottom so I figured i had to change what I was doing and go to the top. I went to the top and I was driving by him and the yellow came out. That is the way it goes. If they are on the bottom, rarely are they going to make that big mistake in open race track without lapped traffic. I figured it was time to try it. It was a good time and it would have worked, but it didn’t.”
At the break Schatz and company changed shocks, made some air pressure adjustments to the tires and were ready for the second half of the 50-lap affair.
“We put a couple fresh shocks on,” said Schatz. “We talked about prior about it. They take a pretty good abuse. It helps to have fresh fluid in it. We changed tires. We didn’t change much. I really started to get free the longer we ran. That is by product of not being able to keep air in the tires in the manner that we need, things that I do, bleeder issue. We started to fade there at the end so we made some pressure adjustments.”
From that point he chased Larson. Larson was on point not making any mistakes before the track started to take rubber on the bottom. When that happened, everyone went to the inner groove of the speedway. Schatz was able to run down Larson and get to his back bumper on multiple occasions. He tried to get the lead on lap 46 and just missed off of four. He tried one last time coming to the checkered flag only to come up just short.
“I was very surprised it laid rubber as hard as it did,” mentioned Schatz. “I knew there was plenty there going into three on the top and the middle, I had used it a couple times. I feel like I had nothing to lose. I’m not much for running second. I figured I’d try it and see what happened. I thought I was going to be able to complete the pass a couple laps prior. So I ran it in there and I kind of cleared him. I just couldn’t come out the other end. With him being patient, waiting on the bottom and getting his tires caught up, it got him to the finish first.”
It wasn’t a win, but he was there. That is no doubt a boost for Schatz and the team. It should only lead to more success in the future. Donny’s not done and he proved that once again at the 60th running of the Knoxville Nationals.