Five-time and reigning World of Outlaws (WoO) STP Sprint Car Series champion Donny Schatz led the Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) contingent in the 42nd Annual UNOH DIRTcar Nationals Presented by Summit Racing Equipment at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., earning a top-five and a pair of top-10s to open his 17th season of competition with “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”
Twenty-time champion Steve Kinser kicked off his fourth season driving the No. 11 Bad Boy Buggies/J.D. Byrider/Chevrolet Performance Maxim with a top-10 Friday night before having difficulties in Saturday and Sunday’s A-Features. Stewart, who earlier in the afternoon qualified fifth for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, made his 2013 WoO debut in the TSR No. 14 Chevrolet Performance/Mobil 1/ J&J and finished 12th in Sunday night’s 30-lap A-Feature.
Schatz, driver of the No. 15 STP/Armor All/Chevrolet Performance J&J for TSR, finished the 2012 season with a flurry en route to his fifth title in the last seven seasons. The Fargo, N.D., racer came out of the box strong with victories two weekends ago at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., over the UNOH All-Star Circuit of Champions. The STP team was scheduled to compete in a pair of All-Star races at Volusia Wednesday and Thursday, but heavy rain both days forced each to be canceled. Friday night, Schatz qualified 24th in the field of 40 cars and began the 30-lap A-Feature 22nd. The lightning-fast surface made passing difficult, but Schatz found a way to charge past 14 cars to finish eighth.
The charge through the field was the foundation for Saturday’s program, which began with Schatz qualifying 15th overall. He led every lap in heat three and gained two positions in the six-lap dash. Early in the 30-lap A-Feature, it was clear the STP machine was a rocket as Schatz looked poised to score his sixth career WoO A-Feature on the half-mile, dirt oval when he charged from eighth to third and was stalking leaders Terry McCarl and Kinser. On the 14th circuit, Schatz made a move to pass Kinser through the middle of turns one and two. Unfortunately, the two TSR cars collided coming out of the turn. The result was a broken front axle for Schatz. Neither car was able to continue and Schatz was credited with a 22nd-place finish.
In Sunday night’s finale, Schatz began with an improved qualifying effort, ranking sixth in the field of 36. Once again, a fast racing surface made passing difficult early and Schatz couldn’t move into one of the coveted top-two spots, which would have gained him a spot in the dash. In the 30-lap A-Feature, the STP crew of Rick Warner, Steve Swenson and Jim O’Hare put a fast car under Schatz and he stormed from 14th to fourth.
“We had higher expectations for the weekend at Volusia, but we know there are a lot of races ahead of us,” Schatz said. “The STP guys worked really hard all weekend. We put ourselves behind Friday trying something different with our motor. Once we got back to where we needed to be, the car was awesome fast. I just started too deep on Friday and Sunday. In Saturday’s race, we were going to give Terry a run for his money but unfortunately never got a chance to race with him. I’m excited about the season ahead. We’re looking forward to getting to Las Vegas and keep getting better.”
Kinser had some highlights over the weekend but, in the end, didn’t get the results he was looking for behind the wheel of the Bad Boy Buggies-backed TSR No. 11. In Friday’s opener, he qualified 18th and raced from 17th to 10th in the main event. In Saturday’s program, it looked like it was going to be a vintage “King Kinser” night after he finished second in heat four and led every lap of the dash to earn his first pole of the season. Kinser followed McCarl early in the 30-lap A-Feature and reeled in the leader between laps seven and 12. His attention turned to Schatz for the next three laps as he tried to fend off the challenges of his teammate. On lap 14, he was trying to continue his pace around the high line but got sideways coming out of turn two. When the car got loose, contact was made, which sent both spinning and resulted in a broken rear end on the No. 11.
Kinser came back Sunday night qualifying 15th out of 36 competitors and again raced his way into the dash. He finished sixth in the six-lap race and started the 30-lap feature on the outside of row three. He held fifth for most of the race until Schatz got past him with a handful of laps remaining. On lap 27, he spun to a stop in turns one and two. He would return to action and came home 14th.
“I hate it that we didn’t get to finish the race on Saturday,” Kinser said. “Everything was going well. I felt like I had a good car and thought I would have a chance at winning the race. I just got a little loose coming out of turn two and hate it that Donny and I got together. It killed both of our nights. My guys (Scott Gerkin and Gary DuBois) worked really hard over the winter, and we did have some moments where the car was one of the quickest down there. We’ll go back home and get ready to head out west for six weeks of racing.”
Three-time Sprint Cup champion Stewart took advantage of Volusia’s proximity to Daytona and made his 2013 debut Sunday with Sprint car racing’s premiere division. He qualified 17th out of 36 and started fifth in the opening heat race in the TSR No. 14 Chevrolet Performance/Mobil 1/ J&J. A fifth-place finish in his heat earned him the 17th-starting spot in the A-Feature. Stewart tried several lines around the dirt oval and patiently worked his way up to 12th.
With a pair of top-10s coupled with Saturday’s DNF, Schatz ranks ninth in the 2013 WoO championship standings. He trails leader Daryn Pittman by 62 markers after three of 85 scheduled nights of racing. Kinser ranks 16th.
Next up for TSR is a doubleheader at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Dirt Track March 6 and 7.