By MIKE MALLETT
Considering the season that Kyle Larson has had in 2021, it comes as no surprise that ‘Young Money’ was finally able to check off the list the biggest event in dirt racing missing on his resume.
The California native has tried multiple times to win the Knoxville Nationals at the Knoxville Raceway, but things just didn’t play out in his favor. On Saturday night…they did.
Larson held off one of the best ever in Sprint Car racing in Donny Schatz to claim the title for the first time along with the record $176,000 payday that went with it. It was literally a dream come true.
“We all say we’ve dreamed off winning this race, but I’ve legit had dreams of winning this race,” said Larson. “It’s just so big. You go to a lot of races throughout the world, the atmosphere here is different than any other race in the world. That’s what makes this race so special and so cool to win. This is the toughest race to win. With the way the format it is, it just adds so much more too it.”
Larson admitted afterwards that he was nervous. He normally is calm, cool and collected when he gets behind the wheel, but Knoxville is different. The want to win brought a whole different range of emotions for him. He was able to control them throughout the race, especially in the closing laps, when he needed it most.
“I felt like I did a good job of staying calm throughout the race,” stated Larson. “This whole week leading up, it’s been so cool to feel that feeling again. Honestly, I haven’t been nervous in a couple of years. I was happy to feel this way this week, especially today. At that same time I had to tell myself to chill out and calm down. When your nerves are up, you start making mistakes, but it’s just how big this race is and how much it means to me.
“I was nervous when he (Schatz) was behind me and I didn’t let my heartrate get up. I knew if I just plugged the bottom it was going to be hard to get by, even though I knew he’s done it so many times. There is no one better in the rubber than him than rolling the outside of somebody.”
Larson didn’t get the best of starts in the feature as he went off from the outside of the second row. Schatz bolted by him on the inside at the green forcing Larson to go into pursuit mode. He did just that.
“On the start, the warmup lap, Sunshine (Tyler Courtney) ran the top pretty good in front of me,” said Larson. “I was like, ‘if Brad (Sweet) doesn’t take off great I’ll slide across and at least come out second’ knowing that Donny was going plug the bottom behind me. The bottom was a little better than I thought it would be that first lap. To come out third, I was happy with it, but obviously didn’t want Donny in front of me. I knew it was a long race and a lot left to go.”
He worked his way back into second on lap 14 before passing Schatz for the lead on lap 25. It was the perfect time. As Schatz was going back by him a lap later, the caution came out for the break to negate the pass.
“We were all getting impatient when we got to traffic,” cited Larson. “I think Donny tried the middle once and I got by, then I tried the middle and he got back by me. We knew the track was going to change and the top was going to finally come in there. Donny caught some lappers. I saw Rico (Abreu) out front of us was able to maintain on the top. We were coming to the halfway break and I really wanted the lead cause because I wanted to set my own pace when the track changed. We were able to get the lead on the top and then, thankfully, we got to halfway because he was driving off of two to go back by me.”
The track changed dramatically for the second half of the race. It started out with the top being the dominant line before shifting to the bottom for the late stages as it began to eventually take rubber. Larson was able to make the necessary adjustments quickly which kept Schatz behind him long enough to score the win.
“I just had to fall in line,” mentioned Larson. “I knew I needed to be patient. I was watching the big screen and I saw Donny get to second. I knew there weren’t any lappers between me and him so he was going to be coming fast. I was just praying that it timed out where he wouldn’t get to my bumper. He got there with two to go.
“He was really on me coming to white and I just had to not lift too much, get tight and get out of the rubber. I ran a slow pace, but I didn’t want to get too close to Shane (Stewart) and get trapped in his dirty air and make mistakes.”
He made none. Schatz tried to no avail allowing Larson to finally make his dream come true of winning the Knoxville Nationals.