Plenty of eyes were on Donny Schatz entering this week’s 62nd NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Store. Even more eyes than normal. Schatz has an opportunity to tie Steve Kinser’s record of 12 Knoxville Nationals titles. Wednesday’s prelim showed no signs of him feeling any pressure.
The 10-time World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car champion drove an excellent 25-lap main event on the opening Qualifier night at Knoxville Raceway. On the day before his 46th birthday, Schatz rolled from seventh on the grid to the front and sealed the deal by besting Chase Randall in a late battle. The win marked his first in a Knoxville Nationals prelim in 20 years.
Not only did Schatz come out on top of the NOS Energy Drink Feature, but his point total of 479 also placed him atop the Knoxville Nationals points. There’s still another prelim to be run, but Schatz has set himself up nicely to have a shot at “The King’s” record on Saturday.
“I remember when I first came here, we were really good on the prelim nights but couldn’t ever put it together on Saturday to get the win, and we took a little bit of that emphasis off,” Schatz said. “I don’t think you can leave anything on the table anymore. We qualified 10th. I think being in that fifth Heat was really key to get through there. The longer you run the more the track widens out, and the track was great all night. Man, my race team, these guys. We didn’t run that good when we were here in June, and we tried a few things. We’re always trying things. Kind of went back to square one, and that’s what you saw. The car feels really good. I can still move around some power, so hopefully we can be in a good spot Saturday.”
While it was Schatz who surged ahead late, the early story of the Feature became about two drivers new to the Nationals. In only his second attempt at The Granddaddy of ‘Em All, Blake Hahn earned the pole of the prelim. Lining up directly behind him in third aboard the TKS Motorsports machine was JETCO Rookie of the Year contender – Chase Randall.
When the green flag dropped, Hahn pulled ahead with the lead while Randall quickly worked his way into second on the second circuit.
Early on Hahn gapped Randall with clean air. While the lead duo had space between, the battles were plentiful inside the top 10 as drivers jockeyed for spots. Schatz began to come to life as the race approached lap 10. After moving into sixth at the initial start, Schatz cracked the top five on the ninth lap. One circle later and he was into fourth. Schatz looked like his peak self as he searched for grip in various lines and often found it.
A red flag on lap 17 for a flipping Justin Peck set up an eight-lap shootout to the finish. Randall took the opportunity to flex his muscle as the Waco, TX native slid by Hahn in Turns 3 and 4 to take over the top spot.
Behind that battle, Schatz quickly moved into third on the opening lap of the restart and then into second a lap later. Schatz began to close on the 18-year-old and pulled the trigger on a slide job on Lap 21 only to have Randall cross him over down the back straightaway and return the favor in the next set of corners.
“I didn’t really have any rhythm going when I got to him and got past him. I kind of went for it and really thought he’d look at me like a senior citizen and give me a pass, but he didn’t,” Schatz said with a laugh. “He went right back on by. That’s cool to see. That’s why we’re here. This is the Knoxville Nationals.”
On the next lap, Randall slid himself in Turns 1 and 2 allowing Schatz to get a run heading into Turn 3. This time, Schatz executed a slider that Randall couldn’t find the momentum to counter.
With the lead secured, Schatz went on to roll to a comfortable victory on the opening qualifier night. When the checkered flag flew, Schatz led Randall by roughly a second and a half to cement a statement win. Now, the focus shifts to Saturday’s finale for the pilot of the Tony Stewart/Curb Agajanian Racing #15.
“I just wanted to get locked in the show,” Schatz said. “That’s kind of the goal. Once you get yourself in a position where you get qualified, you can kind of move that goal post.”
Randall’s runner-up was the latest testament to his continued strides. The Texas talent went wheel to wheel with a living legend for a win on the sport’s grandest stage. Being that close to a win could’ve left a slightly bitter taste for the Knoxville Nationals rookie, but the overall feeling was primarily prideful.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Randall said. “It’s hard to be mad about it, finishing second like that after coming so close. I’m really proud of it and how we did and how the team made the right decisions throughout the night to set us up and put ourselves in position to be that close. And it kind of shows how much hard work they’ve been putting in to get better each and every week. Running here we’ve had really good speed here this whole year, and to be running up front in our prelim night at the Knoxville Nationals is pretty cool.”
Charging from 12th to third to complete the podium was Sheldon Haudenschild aboard the Stenhouse Jr.-Marshall Racing/NOS Energy Drink #17. The Wooster, OH native even moved around eventual winner, Schatz, early on but couldn’t keep him behind him to contend for the victory.
“I knew once I got by Donny early that I needed to keep him back there,” Haudenschild said. “I kind of got hung up on the #39 a little bit, and Donny was able to get by and gap us. All in all it was a good night… I feel pretty good. This is the best I’ve felt in my car in a long time. Getting on the podium was a great night.”
Kerry Madsen and Blake Hahn rounded out the top five.
Tasker Phillips claimed the KSE Racing Hard Charger with a run from 24th to 11th.
The night’s Simpson Performance Products QuickTime Award went to David Gravel for the ninth time this season and the 106th of his career.
CASE No.1 Engine Oil Heat One was claimed by Brady Bacon (fourth Heat Race win of career). Your Life Iowa Heats Two through Five were topped by Sheldon Haudenschild (94th of career), Justin Henderson (33rd of career), Sye Lynch (third of career), and Carson McCarl (second of career).
UP NEXT: The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars are back at Knoxville Raceway on Thursday, August 10 for the second and final prelim night to finalize the top 16 starters for Saturday’s finale. For tickets, CLICK HERE.
If you can’t make it to Knoxville, catch all of the action live on DIRTVision.
A Feature (25 Laps): 1. 15-Donny Schatz; 2. 2KS-Chase Randall; 3. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild; 4. 55-Kerry Madsen; 5. 52-Blake Hahn; 6. 42-Sye Lynch; 7. 39-Hunter Schuerenberg; 8. 7W-Dustin Selvage; 9. 7TW-Brandon Wimmer; 10. 18-Giovanni Scelzi; 11. 7TAZ-Tasker Phillips; 12. 21H-Brady Bacon; 13. 9-Kasey Kahne; 14. 14-Corey Day; 15. 83-James McFadden; 16. 21T-Cole Macedo; 17. 1-Justin Henderson; 18. 22-Riley Goodno; 19. 1X-Jake Bubak; 20. 1M-Don Droud Jr; 21. 7S-Robbie Price; 22. 27-Carson McCarl; 23. 83T-Tanner Carrick; 24. 13-Justin Peck