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Leistikow: A bizarre night at Knoxville Nationals leaves Donny Schatz, Kyle Larson in limbo – Des Moines Register

Leistikow: A bizarre night at Knoxville Nationals leaves Donny Schatz, Kyle Larson in limbo – Des Moines Register
09 Aug
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Kyle Larson was thinking through the logistics about trying to come back for a shot at the Knoxville Nationals A-main, but NASCAR duty calls first. Chad Leistikow, cleistik@dmreg.com

KNOXVILLE, Ia. — Can’t say we saw any of this coming to open the 59th Knoxville Nationals.

You could have predicted that Donny Schatz and Kyle Larson — two titans in recent Nationals history, and the 1-2 finishers here in 2017 — would find themselves racing side-by-side in Wednesday’s crucial qualifying night.

But … in Row 4 of the B-main feature?

It’s true.

Also true: When the night ended, a Knoxville semi-regular who hasn’t done anything noteworthy here was your A-main winner.

A crazy night indeed.

One that left Schatz and Larson in disbelief.

Schatz, the 10-time Nationals winner, is almost certain to be returning his No. 15 to Friday night’s last-chance qualifier. Even after a valiant engine change and making Wednesday’s A-main, Schatz finished the night 10th in points — hardly the performance he needed to lock himself into Saturday night’s biggest race in sprint-car racing.

Larson, meanwhile, was left to wonder if he could even make it back at all Friday.

The NASCAR star would like to give it a shot, but his race for the playoffs in the Monster Energy Cup Series comes first.

He’s got Cup qualifying that starts at 4:05 p.m. CDT Friday at Michigan International Speedway near Detroit. It’s theoretically possible he could find a plane and get here, even if he misses the night’s hot laps — which usually begin around 7 p.m.

“As bad as we were (Wednesday),” Larson said with a grin, “I’d like to do hot laps.”

He’ll have to get the OK from NASCAR boss Chip Ganassi, as he did in 2017 when he pushed Schatz to the finish in his No. 57.

Knoxville marketing director Kendra Jacobs said Larson would need to be here by 7:30 to have a shot at qualifying. That’s a tight turn, even if the weather was good and the plane was quick and timely.

And even if that all came together, he’d need to be back for the start of NASCAR Cup practice in Michigan by 7:35 a.m. CDT Saturday.

Larson loves coming to Knoxville. That’s why he is even considering it an option. A super-talented young driver with dirt-racing roots, he’s been trying to cross a Knoxville Nationals title off his bucket list for years.

He finished fifth in the A-main in 2016, second in 2017, third in 2018. 

And what makes Wednesday’s performance especially dispiriting (he was 21st out of 53 in points) is that because NASCAR changed its Cup schedule, he almost certainly wouldn’t be able to compete here in 2020.

Even if Larson somehow made the logistics work and he qualified for Saturday’s 50-lap feature — the top four finishers Friday night start in spots 21 to 24 the following night — it’d be a serious uphill battle to contend.

“I always want to race and give it another shot,” he said as a line of autograph-seeking fans waited for him to finish media interviews. “I had to run the Friday-night show in 2013. My night was very similar to what it was tonight; we qualified OK and missed the show. Then came back Friday and won.

“So, yeah, I mean I could do it.”

But would he have the car to do it? Changes would need to be made.

“I just didn’t have any grip all night,” Larson said. “Hopefully I get to come back Friday, and we’ll be a lot better.”

Aaron Reutzel was Wednesday night’s points winner, with 487, followed by Tim Kaeding (466), Paul McMahan (465) and Brent Marks (464). But Trey Starks of Puyallup, Washington, enjoyed the biggest celebration as the unlikely winner of the $12,000 A-main.

He commutes (really) from Washington to Knoxville regularly, often taking a red-eye flight to Des Moines to be here for a Friday-night show.

After making the Knoxville A-main final in 2017 then missing it in 2018, his race team decided more track time here for his No. 44 would help his quest to win the Nationals.

“We took it upon ourselves to say, ‘Hey, let’s pick this place out and try to get better there and see if we can consistently be fast there,’” Starks said. “And we haven’t really this year yet.”

Yet when it counted Wednesday, he found himself at the front of the pack.

And left guys like Schatz and Larson searching for answers.

Wednesday’s results

A-main feature (25 laps), $12,000 to win (car number in parentheses) — 1. Trey Starks (44s); 2. James McFadden (9); 3. Sheldon Haudenschild (17); 4. Mark Dobmeier (13); 5. Aaron Reutzel  (87); 6. Brent Marks (19); 7. Tanner Thorson (88); 8. Jac Haudenschild (3H); 9. Paul McMahan (13x); 10. Tim Kaeding (7s); 11. Donny Schatz (15); 12. Gio Scelzi (71); 13. Tasker Phillips (7taz); 14. Wayne Johnson (2c); 15. Austin McCarl (2ks); 16. Ian Madsen (18); 17. Carson McCarl (27); 18. Spencer Bayston (5h); 19. Skylar Gee (99x); 20. Justin Peck (70x); 21. Jamie Ball (5j); 22. Paige Polyak (19p); 23. Jeff Swindell (7sw); 24. Scotty Thiel (64).

Points leaders — 1. Aaron Reutzel, 4887; 2. Tim Kaeding, 466; 3. Paul McMahan, 465; 4. Brent Marks, 464; 5. Trey Starks, 463; 6. Ian Madsen, 455; 7. Sheldon Haudenschild, 453; 8. James McFadden, 450; 9. Gio Scelzi, 449; 10. Donny Schatz, 447.

Source: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/motor/auto-racing/2019/08/08/knoxville-nationals-knoxville-raceway-kyle-larson-donny-schatz-nascar-sprint-car-trey-starks/1950465001/

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