By MIKE MALLETT
The champ is here.
Donny Schatz walked into the 61st Annual Knoxville Nationals with the swagger and confidence of a driver that is a 10-time winner of Sprint Car racing’s largest paying event. He seemed to be the same Schatz that had an impressive stretch that saw him win 10 of 12 events from 2006 to 2017 with only Tim Shaffer and Jason Johnson dethroning him.
It’s been a dry spell the last handful of seasons for Schatz as the likes of Sweet, Gravel and Larson have topped the field. He was always in the hunt, but just couldn’t find his way back to victory lane. Saturday night, he did.
“It feels like the first time,” said Schatz. “I can tell you; it definitely feels harder, harder and harder. David (Gravel) was incredible. I didn’t know if we’re gonna get him or not.”
It was an emotional victory for Schatz who shed tears during his victory lane interview. He’s faced several struggles this season with none larger than the loss of his father Danny Schatz to cancer. It’s changed his worldview and perspective on life and racing.
“Well, the perspective of it is you need to enjoy every day as if it’s the last,” said Schatz. “You never know if this is my last opportunity, my last one, you just don’t know. I think when you get out here and you race with the World of Outlaws, we all get it. I mean, we’re all fierce competitors, David is, Logan is, as I am and there’s 20 other guys in that pit or probably even more than that. We get caught up in that. Sometimes we take everything else for granted and nothing else matters other than what we do trying to get here.
“That perspective has changed in my life a little bit, you know. I’m no different than anybody else. We’re all going to lose family members and we’re going to lose people close to us, but it just opened my eyes to just enjoy everything for the moment. Enjoy it for what it is today because man, you never know if or when it’s the last time you’re gonna get that opportunity. So I’m very lucky, very blessed to be around all you great people, all the great fans, all the great racers and I get to do what I love to do. I’m probably enjoying it as much now as I have in the past. I feel really lucky for that time.”
Schatz was the hot pick to win the feature after two impressive runner-up finishes. First in last Sunday night’s Capitani Classic and then again in preliminary action on Wednesday. Running second in those races was a benefit as the team worked to improve.
“We were just able to turn the tables tonight and be the one that was a little bit better, but I definitely wasn’t upset Wednesday night or Sunday night,” said Schatz. “I mean, nobody knows better than me that you got to run second here sometimes. I just really didn’t want to do it tonight.”
With that said, early in the main, he struggled. He rolled off from inside of the second and struggled in the opening circuits of the race. He fell back outside the top five and was running sixth at the halfway break. Changes were made and his Tony Stewart Racing No. 15 came to life over the second half of the race.
“I just did not do a good job,” said Schatz. “At the beginning I actually got pissed off at myself. I felt like maybe we made some changes that we shouldn’t have and I made that pretty clear to the guys at the halfway point. So, they did the 911 and it worked. I’m not exactly sure what they changed, but obviously it was good.
“It was kind of do or die for me at the beginning on the top. I tried to run the top and that’s where I was getting passed. Guys were going underneath me and it was completely the opposite of what we were the last two nights when we ran the prelim night and then the Capi (Capitani Classic).”
When the green was displayed after the break, Schatz returned to what gave him success earlier in the week. He began working the bottom and middle of the race track. This allowed him to pick off cars at will. He moved into the top five immediately after the break. He took fourth on lap 30, third on lap 32 before then driving by Tyler Courtney for second 38 restart. From there, the chase was on.
“We picked through them guys one by one and if you can do that, you know Brad’s not easy to get by, Brent Marks is not easy to get by, (Carson) Macedo is not easy to get by. They’re all good cars so we just had to keep digging and keep through it. Actually, I was pretty frustrated on the open (red) and Lynton (Jeffrey) was standing there telling me you’re better than everybody on the bottom in one and two and I said, ‘listen you need to go get your eyes checked,’ but he was obviously right. Sometimes you have to take a little advice from other people and you can’t always figure everything out yourself. My guys made a lot of the right changes and here we are.”
Schatz was methodical in his use of the bottom and middle lines in turn one and two. He used the bottom, middle and top of turns three and four to pull to Gravel’s tail-tank. He didn’t make his pass for the lead until he knew he could complete it. That came in turns three and four on lap 46 as he slid from the bottom to the top to take the lead as they exited turn four.
“I had to move around the racetrack and it just got slow enough on the top where we could just keep sticking the bottom and sticking the bottom and sticking the bottom and it finally worked,” stated Schatz. We got a good run on David. I knew that if I waited, I’d have to wait till I could actually get by because if I seen him he was going to have to change it up which anybody in the right mind would. It just worked for us at the right time.”
Even after taking the lead, he made sure to reach the checkered flag even though he ran away for the final handful of laps. He took one extra to make sure it was the checkered flag.
Schatz earned a $175,000 payday while moving one win closer to the all-time record of 12 wins in the event which is currently held by ‘The King’ Steve Kinser.