By Mike Mallett
Friday night’s Hard Knox program at the Knoxville Raceway in the 62nd edition of the Knoxville Nationals had two expected drivers lock-in, as well as one driver making his first A-Main start while another made his first A-Main since back in 2012.
Aaron Reutzel and David Gravel met expectations, finishing in spots one and two, while Scott Bogucki finally broke through after seven attempts to make the show. Local favorite Davey Heskin drove the Matt Moro-owned No. 2M to his first A-Main start in over a decade.
Reutzel Dominates: Reutzel started on the pole, took the lead, and pretty much checked out until the final lap, when Gravel made it close at the line. Reutzel has been one of the fastest cars all season at Knoxville Raceway in weekly action. Friday night, he did what he had to do to lock up the 21st spot in Saturday’s A-Main.
“It’s fourth or nothing here,” said the Clute, Texas, driver. “I don’t know where fifth lines you up, but I know it ain’t good. We had some tough luck, same with David. You feel like you just have to get a good lap and get through your heat, and you feel like you should be sitting well on Saturday. I kind of put myself in a bad spot; I got caught up in a wreck, but my guys did a good job getting the car back together. We had a fast race car. We knew we just needed to come tonight and get a good time and hopefully get through our heat where it started us up front and do what we did.”
Gravel in a Different Position: Gravel came into this year’s Nationals marked as one of the contenders for Saturday night’s top prize. He’s good at Knoxville and has been good with the World of Outlaws as of late. Those hopes were dashed on Wednesday night when the Watertown, Conn., driver found himself in the wall on lap one of his heat race. He never recovered, and he was headed to Hard Knox.
Friday’s A-Main saw him roll off from seventh. He moved swiftly forward in the 25-lap A-Main before coming home second. He’s not starting 22nd in the field on Saturday. All that matters is that he’s in the show.
“If you’ve run fifth tonight, it’s 11th in the B,” said Gravel. “From there, it’s going to be a really tall task. So, there is a lot of pressure tonight. I guess I didn’t really understand the format 100% going into it. I know you wanted to qualify good, but I didn’t realize that literally qualifying was everything tonight. If you did not qualify good, there was no making up for it, no matter what you did in the race. I just can’t get a good pill draw. It was pressure going out late in my group and being fourth quick.
“I was almost disappointed in that, but you’re happy to be in the second row and have the opportunity to still start somewhere towards the front, but I was definitely upset when I’m starting seventh. I was like, Man, I won my heat; something good is gonna happen here, and I started seventh. So, I was like, I hope this isn’t my Nationals here. It’s just gonna be a tough night every single night. Luckily, the first couple laps went nice and smooth. Then you could kind of breathe from there and see where Scott went and Aaron went, and just kind of try to pace them and see if you can keep up with him. So big relief. We’ve been fast. It’s a different car, a different motor, and I’m just happy to be in the ballgame.”
Bogucki’s Dream Comes True: He’s tried and failed on every attempt to this point in his career to make the A-Main for the Knoxville Nationals, but on Friday, his dream came true for Bogucki. Bogucki came to the States from Australia 12 years ago with a dream of one day being a sprint car driver.
He spent time on the road as a crew member for Johnny Herrera before saving enough money to buy a race car. He raced at home before making the jump and committing to Iowa and the Knoxville Raceway. He got some help from Troy and Tammy Renfro, owners of the No. 2KS. It was a steep learning curve, but it finally paid off. He’s going to the show on Saturday night.
“I feel like it’s only probably been the last year or so, and I can actually rip a good lap here,” said Bogucki. “This place is so tricky. So, you know, when you start on the front row with someone like Aaron and, you know, you get David behind you, it was pretty nerve-racking. I knew I had to get off to a good start. I could kind of keep pace with them. So I knew I wasn’t doing horrible. It’s been a roller coaster. This is something I’ve really wanted to do, probably more than other victories. I finally got it done.”
The triumph came on the heels of a tough week for Bogucki. He was disqualified from a third-place finish on his preliminary night in the 360 Nationals before destroying a car on Monday night at the Front Row Challenge at Southern Iowa Speedway. Then, he just missed making the show on points after his preliminary night.
“I’ve just been so close a lot of times,” said Bogucki. “Just like on Wednesday, you know, like Davey said in the heat race, I just got to fifth. I’ve done it three times before, and then the B-Main, you know, you try too hard, and here you are Friday. I’ve even run fifth in this race before. I was getting into a wreck tonight, or we’re going to lock in. There was no way I was running fifth again. So, it’s amazing. It’s still sinking in.”
From Corn Shucking to the A-Main for Heskin: On Friday morning, Heskin was shucking corn with his daughters for the Marion County Cattlemen’s food booth. On Friday night, he was racing his way into the Knoxville Nationals in impressive fashion. He rolled off 10th and found his groove late, allowing him to pass Parker Price-Miller in the late stages for the final spot in the A-Main.
“It’s a blessing to have everything that you have,” said Heskin. “Like I said Wednesday night, I was pretty down on everything. We came back, and I think I was the most nervous I’ve ever been for a heat race there. I think it kind of showed those last five laps, but it’s just unreal to lock in. Everybody up here knows how much time and effort they put into these things, just to do it with your family and friends. It’s just something unreal. You know? All my girls are here. I can’t wait for them to come walking through that door. It’s unreal right now.”
Heskin lost a motor on his qualifying night. There wasn’t any of that on Friday, as the local favorite was able to make the right moves at the right time. He found a little bit of a different line as the laps clicked off. That made all the difference.
“I thought it was terrible after that restart,” said Heskin of his No. 2m. “I don’t know if I just cooled down just idling around for those two minutes, but I felt terrible. Then, about three or four laps after that, everybody kind of started missing, and then, honestly, I found a little. I was hiccuping in the middle of one and two. I moved over a little bit to avoid the bump, and then I could just lay on it coming out. That’s really what I think helped me out there. I could mold myself into the berm there and take off down out of two.”
Now the field is just about set. The final four spots will be determined Saturday night when the 22-lap B-Main reaches its conclusion.