By Mike Mallett
It was the perfect night for Kyle Larson.
The driver from Elk Grove, Calif., dominated the 62nd edition of the Knoxville Nationals on Saturday night at the Knoxville Raceway for his second title in the last three years. Larson matched Donny Schatz as the only other driver to ever lead all 50 laps while winning a whopping $185,000.
“Donny is the only other guy that’s done it, and anytime you can join any list that he’s on, it’s special,” said Larson. “To now be one of two guys who’ve led all 50 is great, but really, I just wanted to win. I didn’t really care how many laps I led. I could have gotten beat on the start. All I cared about was leading the last one, and thankfully, we were able to do that.”
The win means a lot to the 31 year old driver. The Knoxville Nationals is the race he thinks about for 51 weeks a year until he returns to the corn and soybean fields in the heart of Iowa. The week-long event is the most important date on the calendar.
“Knoxville is the event I look forward to the most,” he said. “There may be one other event next year that I might look forward to a little bit more (Indianapolis 500), but this is just the greatest week of the year for me. I look forward to it all year long. You know, I have FOMO (fear of missing out) when the 360 Nationals are going on because I just can’t wait to get to this little town and see all my friends, see the race fans, and get to race on the best surface in the country, in the world.”
With two wins in the last three Nationals, Larson is beginning to put together a streak like that of a younger Schatz. He’s a threat to win every year. If not for a blown tire last year in the first half of the race, who knows what could have been for the NASCAR Cup Series star? It all goes back to feeling more comfortable at Knoxville in his Paul Silva-owned No. 57 sprint car.
“I definitely feel more comfortable every time I come here, but it’s also more than just me,” said Larson. “Paul gets the car better and better every year. There’s no doubt that I would love to be better earlier in the night to make things a little bit easier on prelim nights, but I think our qualifying is getting a little bit better on half miles this year. So, it takes a great team, and Paul’s assembled a phenomenal race team with Trevor and Doug and all the partners on our race car.”
Larson also attributed his recent run to the man he’s trying to emulate. He’s studied Schatz and the magical runs he’s had at Knoxville over his career.
“You got to study; you got to study hard,” he said. “Every competitor has studied this guy (Schatz) a ton. You have seen the style of racing change over the last few years. I think guys are studying. A lot of people have gotten better on the bottom and even off the bottom, too, through the middle because of watching him. The competition gets elevated each year. Guys get better and better. So, I am just fortunate to win another big one, and I would love to go on a tear like Donny. I feel like I’m already too old to ever get to what he’s accomplished here. But you know, we’re off to a decent start.”
Larson went off from the poll of the A-Main by virtue of scoring the most points. He lined up along side Rico Abreu, with Schatz on his back bumper. He jumped out to the lead quickly and didn’t look back.
“Getting the poll really helped tonight,” said Larson. “It was just so fast—such a fast pace the whole time—that I felt like it was gonna be tough for guys to get by. The caution is definitely felt at the right times. Track position’s key. No matter what series or type of car you’re in, especially in a sprint car race for 50 laps, that’s really pretty short of a race. So it was good to have a good prelim night and then have a clean race tonight.”
After getting the jump, Larson pretty much set his own pace. He ran a few laps early on the bottom, but once the top became the dominant line, he was nearly untouchable. He did have one scare when a lapped car slid up to the top, forcing him to nearly get into the wall. Larson made a quick recovery and, more importantly, had no mistakes.
“There were definitely a few sketchy moments in traffic where I got hung up, and I just wasn’t sure how close those guys were behind me or if any lines developed, but I felt like I made all the right decisions, or mostly right,” said Larson. “I had a couple of bad laps, but for the most part, I felt like I ran a pretty good race.”
The win secures Larson’s place in elite company in the Knoxville Nationals history books. He became only the eighth driver in the history of the event to score more than one victory.