The silence was different. An oddity that confused a mind used to Johnny Gibson calling the four-wide salute and fans yelling as loud as they can in reaction to an epic battle waged for the glory.
However, it was replaced by an unexpected sense, shared by the few fortunate enough to be in attendance. A sense that you knew Friday night’s World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Invitational at Knoxville Raceway presented by McKay Insurance was big. Not in the sense of a Knoxville Nationals or Kings Royal. Bigger. Historic.
A 48-car field of the best Sprint Car drivers in the world that included the return of Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, following strict COVID-19 regulations, set by the World of Outlaws, competed for $10,000-to-win in front of an empty grandstand and thousands of fans watching live on DIRTVision desperate for Sprint Car racing. Desperate to forget for a few hours about life.
The silence around the half-mile track was an adjustment, but when drivers fired their cars for the first time in more than two months, normalcy set in. And when their helmets went on, the passion, aggression and competitiveness returned, knowing no difference from before.
It showed during the 30-lap Feature. Last year’s Knoxville Nationals winner David Gravel, of Watertown, CT and two-time Knoxville track champion Ian Madsen, of Saint Marys, NSW, Australia, put on such an electrifying show that you couldn’t help but feel like everyone watching at home was at the track with you.
Every slide job the two traded for the lead added another level of tension and drama. Then, with the white flag in the air, Gravel stole the lead from Madsen to win yet another race at Knoxville with the eyes of the world upon him.
“We don’t really feel how many people are watching, maybe tens of thousands of people are watching tonight (on DIRTVision) and hopefully that was a good race for everyone to get their blood pumping again,” Gravel said. “Me and Ian just battled and battled and battled … It’s just good to get back in a race car and be competitive.”
Gravel earned his first small victory of the night by setting the fastest time in Flight 2 of Qualifying, however Aaron Reutzel set overall Quick Time. Gravel dominated his Drydene Heat Race and then finished fourth in the DIRTVision Fast Pass Dash – won by Madsen.
When the Feature went green, Daryn Pittman darted ahead of Madsen for the lead and led the opening eight laps before Madsen tracked him down and powered around the outside of him. Pittman spent the next eight laps trying to claw his way back by Madsen, but the Australian’s car was in love with the black-clay and pulled away.
Behind them, Gravel looked to be struggling after an early run at the leaders. He fell from third to fifth on a restart and came close to crashing with Lynton Jeffrey as they banged side bars going into Turn 2. It took him a few laps to recalibrate and work at building his momentum again. He got to fourth by Lap 11. Third by Lap 13. And the passed Pittman for second on Lap 16.
With the same engine under his hood that guided him and Jason Johnson Racing to a Knoxville Nationals win and sweep of the World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, it only took Gravel another lap to eliminate Madsen’s half a track lead. The two drivers then put on a battle that will be remembered for years.
Gravel had a run underneath Madsen that was sure to give him the lead, but a slower car running the bottom hindered his exit of Turn 4, allowing Madsen to pull back ahead. The two then traded slide jobs each lap, but Madsen continued to carry the better momentum off the corner to hold the lead.
With about three laps to go, Gravel threw a desperate slider underneath Madsen going into Turn 1. However, if he continued the trajectory of his slider he could have plowed into the side of Madsen. Gravel thought better and cranked his car sideways to avoid that outcome. He then watched Madsen fire down the backstretch to about a half of a track away.
Gravel thought the race was lost. A valiant attempt gone sour. But in this unusual event, the unexpected was ever present.
Madsen’s car got sideways off Turn 4 coming to two laps to go. That allowed Gravel one final shot at running Madsen down. He closed through Turns 1 and 2, but not enough to set up another desperate slider the next corner. Looking to cruise to his first World of Outlaws win at Knoxville, Madsen road the high side through Turns 3 and 4, coming to one lap to go.
However, Madsen, again, had an issue trying to exit Turn 4, getting sideways and killing his speed. Gravel didn’t hesitate to take advantage. He sped by Madsen down the front stretch to lead his first lap of the race and only had one more to go.
You could hear the thunder of cheers building in your head, even though they weren’t there in reality. This momentous moment in time was about to come to a close in thrilling fashion. No matter who won, it was going to be an exciting memory in Sprint Car history. After one final lap with no mistakes, Gravel etched his name in history once again and claimed a win that may be remembered more than his Knoxville Nationals win or any other big win after.
“I don’t know how,” said an elated Gravel about winning after the race. “Me and Ian made a lot of mistakes. If it was a 25-lap race, I would have lost that one. I was really good in (Turns) 1 and 2 on the bottom, but man, I could not come off. It was so treacherous, and he was kind of running up the track and turning down and getting more momentum. If I hit my marks, I was faster, but man, it was hard to do.”
Also, in an occurrence like no other, fans and companies watching on DIRTVision donated money for various contingencies throughout the night – totaling nearly $15,000 – and part of it brought Gravel’s win total from $10,000 to more than $15,000.
On the other end of the spectrum, while Madsen had a great performance, he said he’s devastated with the results.
“I gave it my all,” Madsen said. “Probably made a little error there at the end. Got my wing too far back and I couldn’t get around the top of (Turns) 3 and 4. I buried myself a couple of times, which allowed David to get by. You just can’t make a mistake like that around him.”
There was a completely different scene for Logan Schuchart, who finished third — after finishing second at the Knoxville Nationals last year — and took the points lead for the first time in his career by doing so.
“Definitely a good start,” Schuchart said. “Started off good. We were quick right off the bat in qualifying. Ran good in the Heat Race. We have some things we can work on to be a little bit better in the Feature, but a great start to the season. Thanks to DIRTVision and the World of Outlaws for putting this on and letting us be here. And Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there.”
There may not have been fans in the stands, but Gravel knew they were there in spirit, looking to the stands when he did his wing dance and then to the camera in recognition of everyone watching on DIRTVision. The silence in Victory Lane was different. But that didn’t diminish his understanding of the historic nature of the event and how good it is to win.
“For us to be the only race this weekend and win it is just good for everybody,” Gravel said. “Good for JJR. Good for (team owner Bobbi Johnson’s son) Jaxx’s birthday. His favorite number is five. We drew that in the Dash. It was all meant to be.”
The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series on Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23 will be at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 for a doubleheader event with limited fans at both events. Tickets for the Saturday’s race are already sold out, but you can still get tickets for Friday’s race by clicking here.
Before the Sprint Cars get there, the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series will be at I-55, next week on Friday, May 15 and Saturday May 16. Click here for more information and tickets.
NOS Energy Drink Feature (30 Laps) – 1. 41-David Gravel  [$10,000]; 2. 18-Ian Madsen  [$5,500]; 3. 1S-Logan Schuchart [$3,200]; 4. 83-Daryn Pittman [$2,800]; 5. 26-Cory Eliason [$2,500]; 6. 15-Donny Schatz  [$2,300]; 7. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey  [$2,200]; 8. 21-Brian Brown  [$2,100]; 9. 49-Brad Sweet  [$2,050]; 10. 57-Kyle Larson  [$2,000]; 11. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss [$1,500]; 12. 48-Danny Dietrich  [$1,200]; 13. 17A-Austin McCarl  [$1,100]; 14. 2-Carson Macedo  [$1,050]; 15. 4-Terry McCarl  [$1,000]; 16. 71-Shane Stewart  [$900]; 17. 64-Brooke Tatnell  [$800]; 18. 2M-Kerry Madsen  [$800]; 19. 56N-Davey Heskin  [$800]; 20. 24-Rico Abreu  [$800]; 21. 7S-Jason Sides ; 22. 11K-Kraig Kinser ; 23. 1A-Jacob Allen  [$800]; 24. 7-Justin Henderson  [$800]; 25. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild  [$800]; 26. 17W-Shane Golobic  [$800]; Lap Leaders: Daryn Pittman 1-8, Ian Madsen 9-28, David Gravel 29-30; KSE Hard Charger Award: 49-Brad Sweet[+10]
Qualifying Flight A – 1. 87-Aaron Reutzel, 15.162; 2. 2M-Kerry Madsen, 15.398; 3. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey, 15.47; 4. 1S-Logan Schuchart, 15.478; 5. 18-Ian Madsen, 15.527; 6. 83-Daryn Pittman, 15.535; 7. O9-Matt Juhl, 15.615; 8. 5-Brent Marks, 15.631; 9. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss, 15.643; 10. 24W-Lucas Wolfe, 15.735; 11. 48-Danny Dietrich, 15.751; 12. 17A-Austin McCarl, 15.768; 13. 14P-Parker Price-Miller, 15.774; 14. 49-Brad Sweet, 15.788; 15. 64-Brooke Tatnell, 15.859; 16. 41S-Dominic Scelzi, 15.871; 17. 55-Hunter Schuerenburg, 15.876; 18. 13-Paul McMahan, 15.886; 19. 56N-Davey Heskin, 15.891; 20. 41G-Giovanni Scelzi, 15.904; 21. 55K-Robbie Kendall, 15.911; 22. 17B-Bill Balog, 16.053; 23. 9W-Ryan Giles, 16.239; 24. 3P-Sawyer Phillips, 16.243
Qualifying Flight B – 1. 41-David Gravel, 15.446; 2. 1A-Jacob Allen, 15.5; 3. 4-Terry McCarl, 15.544; 4. 26-Cory Eliason, 15.587; 5. 21-Brian Brown, 15.689; 6. 17W-Shane Golobic, 15.74; 7. 71-Shane Stewart, 15.754; 8. 2-Carson Macedo, 15.765; 9. 57-Kyle Larson, 15.786; 10. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild, 15.797; 11. 24-Rico Abreu, 15.904; 12. 7-Justin Henderson, 15.913; 13. 11K-Kraig Kinser, 15.924; 14. 15H-Sam Hafertepe, 15.951; 15. 15-Donny Schatz, 15.977; 16. 44-Chris Martin, 15.994; 17. 2C-Wayne Johnson, 16.122; 18. 2KS-Chad Boespflug, 16.149; 19. 9-Kasey Kahne, 16.16; 20. 44S-Trey Starks, 16.281; 21. 33M-Mason Daniel, 16.426; 22. 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips, 16.691; 23. 7S-Jason Sides, 16.72; 24. 15M-Bobby Mincer, 17.495
DRYDENE Heat #1 – Flight (A) (8 Laps) – Top 5 Transfer – 18-Ian Madsen ; 2. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey ; 3. 48-Danny Dietrich ; 4. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss ; 5. 64-Brooke Tatnell ; 6. 56N-Davey Heskin ; 7. 55-Hunter Schuerenburg ; 8. 14P-Parker Price-Miller ; 9. 9W-Ryan Giles ; 10. 55K-Robbie Kendall ; 11. 87-Aaron Reutzel ; 12. O9-Matt Juhl 
DRYDENE Heat #2 – Flight (A) (8 Laps) – Top 5 Transfer – 1S-Logan Schuchart ; 2. 83-Daryn Pittman ; 3. 2M-Kerry Madsen ; 4. 17A-Austin McCarl ; 5. 49-Brad Sweet ; 6. 41S-Dominic Scelzi ; 7. 41G-Giovanni Scelzi ; 8. 5-Brent Marks ; 9. 13-Paul McMahan ; 10. 24W-Lucas Wolfe ; 11. 3P-Sawyer Phillips ; 12. 17B-Bill Balog 
DRYDENE Heat #3 – Flight (B) (8 Laps) – Top 5 Transfer – 41-David Gravel ; 2. 21-Brian Brown ; 3. 15-Donny Schatz ; 4. 4-Terry McCarl ; 5. 57-Kyle Larson ; 6. 71-Shane Stewart ; 7. 24-Rico Abreu ; 8. 7S-Jason Sides ; 9. 9-Kasey Kahne ; 10. 11K-Kraig Kinser ; 11. 33M-Mason Daniel ; 12. 2C-Wayne Johnson 
DRYDENE Heat #4 – Flight (B) (8 Laps) – Top 5 Transfer – 26-Cory Eliason ; 2. 17W-Shane Golobic ; 3. 1A-Jacob Allen ; 4. 2-Carson Macedo ; 5. 7-Justin Henderson ; 6. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild ; 7. 15H-Sam Hafertepe ; 8. 44-Chris Martin ; 9. 2KS-Chad Boespflug ; 10. 44S-Trey Starks ; 11. 15M-Bobby Mincer ; 12. 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips 
DIRTVision Fast Pass Dash (6 Laps) – 1. 18-Ian Madsen ; 2. 83-Daryn Pittman ; 3. 17W-Shane Golobic ; 4. 41-David Gravel ; 5. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey ; 6. 1S-Logan Schuchart ; 7. 21-Brian Brown ; 8. 26-Cory Eliason 
C-Main (10 Laps) – Top 2 Transfer – 44S-Trey Starks ; 2. 2C-Wayne Johnson ; 3. 17B-Bill Balog ; 4. 33M-Mason Daniel ; 5. 15M-Bobby Mincer ; 6. O9-Matt Juhl ; 7. 3P-Sawyer Phillips ; 8. 24W-Lucas Wolfe ; 9. 55K-Robbie Kendall ; 10. 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips 
Last Chance Showdown (12 Laps) – Top 4 Transfer – 17-Sheldon Haudenschild ; 2. 71-Shane Stewart ; 3. 24-Rico Abreu ; 4. 56N-Davey Heskin ; 5. 41S-Dominic Scelzi ; 6. 15H-Sam Hafertepe ; 7. 7S-Jason Sides ; 8. 14P-Parker Price-Miller ; 9. 5-Brent Marks ; 10. 13-Paul McMahan ; 11. 9-Kasey Kahne ; 12. 44-Chris Martin ; 13. 55-Hunter Schuerenburg ; 14. 44S-Trey Starks ; 15. 2KS-Chad Boespflug ; 16. 41G-Giovanni Scelzi ; 17. 2C-Wayne Johnson ; 18. 9W-Ryan Giles ; 19. 87-Aaron Reutzel