KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Kyle Larson led from wire to wire to open the 57th annual 5-hour Energy Knoxville Nationals, taking Paul Silva’s No. 57 sprint car to his third-career Knoxville Raceway win on Brandt Professional Agriculture Qualifying Night.
Larson started on the pole and never looked back after shaking off an opening lap challenge from Austin McCarl, seizing the lead by Turn 4 and controlling the race pace en route to the victory.
With his dominant performance on Wednesday night, Larson has now created a conundrum for his NASCAR owner Chip Ganassi, who didn’t have plans for Larson to be able to return for Saturday’s championship program going into the night.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get Chip talked into this,” Larson admitted in victory lane. “I definitely gotta have the converstion with him, that’s for sure. I want to, so bad.”
For Larson, it was his eighth sprint car win since June 13, with seven of those coming at the wheel of Silva’s machine.
“I’ve never been this good in a sprint car in my career,” he said. “To win a prelim night with Paul Silva is amazing. Our car was really good the whole feature. I was a little bit loose around the bottom, but I moved up at the right time and found some speed up there.”
“I’m super happy to win … nervous about the phone call, but I hope he’s listening and knows how much I appreciate everything he already allows me to do racing sprint cars. If we could race Saturday night, it’d be a dream come true.”
Austin McCarl took the immediate lead off the green flag, but was quickly passed by Larson in Turns 3 and 4 on the opening circuit. Larson quickly jetted out to a one-second lead over McCarl, while the moving man early was Donny Schatz, who charged from sixth to fourth in just two circuits.
The first caution flew on the third round, when a slowing Parker Price-Miller rolled to a stop on the backstretch with damage to his nose wing. That set up an early restart, in which Larson and McCarl quickly resumed the front two spots ahead of a torrid battle for third between Greg Hodnett and Schatz.
Schatz moved around the outside of Hodnett and into the third spot on lap five, while Larson slowly started to stretch his lead, holding a nearly two-second gap by the time Schatz moved to the bottom and tracked down McCarl at the halfway point.
The second spot went to Schatz on lap 14, while Hodnett worked his way past McCarl for the third position three laps later and pulled quickly away from the No. 2KS.
That scramble was of no consequence to Larson, however, who worked traffic to perfection and ultimately maintained a comfortable margin all the way to the finish – taking the checkered flag .910 of a second in front of Schatz in the end.
Despite a runner-up result in the main event, Schatz ended night one as the high points man, seeking his 10th-career Nationals title during finale night on Saturday.
“We tried something there to see if we could get a little better and might have gotten a little bit worse,” Schatz said of his Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian mount. “You’ve got to do that, though, to learn. We got ourselves in a good spot in the heat race … got qualified okay, and now we’ve just got to finish good (on Saturday).”
“Kyle was really good there when the race track changed. He got up on it, and we were just really too free. Hats off to my whole race team. They’re really great at what they do, and when I get out of the car and (crew chief) Ricky Warner is saying to me, ‘We need to do this’ or ‘We need to do that’ … that’s a vote of confidence for me when I go to get back in it.”
Hodnett completed the podium finishers in third, followed by Brad Sweet and McCarl, who faded on seven cylinders after a broken spark plug sucked power from his motor in the closing laps but still hung on for fifth.
Fast qualifier Kerry Madsen, Shane Stewart, Paul McMahan, Christopher Bell and Bill Balog completed the top 10.
Lucas Wolfe won the night’s 12-lap B-Main, inheriting the point on lap nine when outside polesitter AJ Moeller hit the outside wall after leading the first eight circuits.
Wolfe led the rest of the way, while Dusty Zomer, Chase Johnson and Tim Shaffer also moved transferred through into the A-Main.
The scheduled 10-lap C-Main was scratched when only four of the scheduled eight drivers made the call for the event.
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…