Big Guns show up, Schatz and Gravel win in Knoxville

Brian Brown
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As the Craftsman World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Car series invaded Knoxville Raceway for the Brownells Big Guns Bash on Friday and Saturday night, there was no shortage of big guns.

Donny Schatz and David Gravel battled it out over the weekend and each took home an important victory in a tight WoO point battle.

Schatz takes Knoxville on somber night

You’ve read this before. “Donny Schatz wins at Knoxville.”

But this one was different.

Schatz’ win comes six days following the death of respected racer and 2016 Knoxville Nationals champion Jason Johnson, and it will be one to remember for some time.

“Some days, it just isn’t fair I guess,” Schatz said in victory lane. “Tonight was probably one of the first nights I ever asked myself, ‘When you put the suit on, why?’ Once I fired the car, everything made sense. This is what I love to do. This is what everybody out here loved to do. Thank you to the racers, the fans, the racetracks, everybody.”

Prior to the race, the World of Outlaws paid tribute to Johnson in numerous ways.

During opening ceremonies, a tribute video honoring Johnson was played over the big screens at the track. It shows Johnson’s first win as an Outlaws driver, his 2016 Knoxville Nationals celebration, and numerous other, joyful moments of his career.

As the cars lined up in the four-wide salute, Schatz would drop back a row to form what is called the missing-man formation. The cars are lined-up four-by-four through the field in the order in which they would have started the race, but the front row only contains three cars, with the 1st spot left open in memory of Johnson.

Its been a very shocking week, but I’m glad to be standing here right now,” Schatz said. “Words can’t describe it. It puts into perspective that tomorrow is never guaranteed for any of us. Irregardless of who you are or where you’re from, it doesn’t really matter. When I got in the car and hit the switch, that’s the only thing that cures [me]. That’s the only place I really feel safe.”

As the 25-lap main event started up, it was evident that Schatz’ #15 car was the class of the field, and perhaps the only driver that could challenge or even keep up with the veteran was Lynton Jeffrey.  

Three laps into the race, the cars slowed for a caution flag as Brian Brown had a tire malfunction and had to pull off the track. When they restarted with 22 laps to go, Schatz made a move that would win him the race.

As the pack of cars came around turns three and four to re-take the green flag, Jeffrey got a big run on the outside and was ready to run the outside of the turn and try to pass Schatz right off of the bat. Schatz didn’t see him. The 15 car went high and got into Jeffrey’s No. 12, causing Jeffrey to crash and flip his car multiple times.

“I didnt see Lynton,” Schatz said. “Obviously he got a good run on the start and we both wanted the cushion going into [turn] one. His left front got into my right rear, and he ended up in the fence. That’s just the way it goes some days.”

Jeffrey stepped out of his car and immediately did an interview on the track over the video board. It would be understandable for a driver to be mad at Schatz, but Jeffrey was all smiles, saying that he did his best.

Schatz went on to win the main event, taking night one of the two-day, two-feature WoO weekend.

“At the end of the day, Donny SChatz was super fast tonight,” Jeffrey said after the race. “We got a run there at the start. I just didnt think he was expecting me to be there. He already came by to see me and he told me he didn’t see me. I believe that. We just ran out of racetrack.”

Brooke Tatnell was right behind the two on the restart, and had a front-row view of the incident.

“Any time you go past the flag stand you think you’re clear of a guy,” Tatnell said. “That’s just a racing deal. [Schatz] is the cleanest guy you’re ever going to race against.”

The incident brings back the old debate surrounding whether double-file restarts are necessary in sprint car racing. The WoO is one of the only series to do it, and drivers have mixed feelings.

“I don’t really care for them,” Schatz said. “They say the fans want it. It’s what caused the crash last week and we lost a guy. We’ve got a junked racecar tonight.”

On the other side of things, some drivers want the fans to see a lot of action and passing during the restarts.

“[Double-file restarts] shake the field up,” Tatnell said. “We start the race with a double file start, so I don’t [see an issue with it]. If you don’t have it they just get stretched out. This way it jumbles people up and you have a chance of either going forward or backward on a restart.”

With his win, Schatz continues to climb up higher into the top 10 on the Knoxville Raceway all-time wins list. Despite only coming to the track for a handful of races a year, Schatz outnumbers a large group of Knoxville regulars.

He simply dominates. Though, humbly, Schatz disagreed.

“We’re not dominant,” Schatz said. “We have a very solid race team. We’ve got a very good baseline here. We’ve got a very good baseline everywhere. When you’ve been racing 25 years, you should have a good baseline. This is the mecca of sprint car racing and to be able to win here means everything.

“This week it’s extra special,” he said.

Gravel overcomes Schatz to take Night 2 at Knoxville

On Saturday, fans saw a bit more passing up front.

During the first green flag run Schatz distanced himself from the pack by two seconds before the caution flags came out three laps into the race for a slowed Justin Henderson.

On the next run, however, Schatz found a challenger in Brad Sweet.  Sweet went around Schatz after battling him for a few laps, clearing the 15 and putting the No. 49 out front.

Although Schatz came back to pass Sweet, he did it in the midst of a caution and didn’t complete the lap until after the lights came on, giving the lead back to Sweet.

Enter David Gravel. Gravel restarted behind the Sweet and Schatz, putting the top three drivers in the WoO points standings in the top three positions.

Gravel got a great jump on the start to push past both Schatz and Sweet taking the lead with 16 laps to go.

“Whoever had the lead there between [Schatz], me, or [Sweet], I think that’s who was probably going to win the race,” Gravel said. “Luckily I was able to get by those guys on the restart.”

Gravel was just starting to fight his way through lapped traffic when Tatnell brought out the caution.

The Connecticut native needed just one more restart to get the victory, but he’d have to hold off Schatz.

“I knew what he was going to do,” Gravel said. “I was thinking that I was going to get a good enough start where he couldn’t roll around me. I knew he was going to pick up the crumbles in [turns] one and two about halfway up the track, and I wasn’t going to open up the door.”

Gravel got around the turn and found a run on the backstretch.

“I knew I’d hit my lines and he’d be side-by-side with me, but if I hit my exit I should have been good down the backstretch,” Gravel said. “I just had enough.”

Gravel went on to take the win, holding off Schatz. Following the race, Gravel would praise Schatz clean driving.

“If it was anybody else, he might have chopped me and took my air away, but he gave me room,” Gravel said. “He’s a first class racer and I’m happy to race with him most of these nights.”

When asked about the restart that got him the win, Gravel made it known where he was setting his sights.

“Forget about that,” he said. “Who’s ready for nationals?”

Gravel won the second night of the 2017 Knoxville Nationals and was leading in the main event before a failed engine forced his night to be complete early.

“We have unfinished business here,” Gravel said.

World of Outlaws Standings
As of June 30 at Knoxville Raceway
1. Donny Schatz 4576
2. Brad Sweet -102
3. David Gravel -232
4. Daryn Pittman -324
5. Shane Stewart -326
6. Sheldon Haudenschild -450
7. Logan Schuchart -482
8. Ian Madsen -608