KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Tim Kaeding started close to the front and never let up during Toyota Qualifying Night at the 56th annual 5-hour Energy Knoxville Nationals, charging past polesitter Dale Blaney in a near-dead heat on lap eight before seizing the point for good en route to victory in Thursday’s 25-lap preliminary feature.
Kaeding led the final 17 laps of the contest, weathering a caution with 11 to go and a restart that saw Jason Johnson apply pressure from behind before pulling away down the stretch to win by 2.273 seconds.
The win was the fifth of Kaeding’s career at Knoxville Raceway, and he dedicated it to the late Bryan Clauson after pulling his Lunstra Motorsports No. 3K into victory lane.
“I’ve gotta give this one to B.C.,” Kaeding said, emotion prevalent in his voice. “Here’s another one towards your 200, buddy. I grew up racing with his dad. They’re all just a great family and (he was) a hell of a race car driver.”
Kaeding battled both the heat and impending weather on his way to the top step of the podium, with the race just getting to conclusion around 9:30 p.m. local time as severe storms rolled in around the historic half-mile dirt oval.
“This car was a rocket ship tonight. We had a great ride, but man, I’m ready for a beer. It was way too hot to be in this thing tonight.”
“This kind of a performance is tremendous for us, though. Usually I’m qualified about 28th right now. For me to qualify 13th here is excellent. We took a little time off here and there and regrouped. I told my car owners I do better when I just show up and race. I don’t know what we are going to do tonight, but we are definitely going to be drunk.”
Blaney started the race like a shot and led the first eight laps as Kaeding raced forward from fourth on the grid, rolling to second on the opening lap and immediately giving chase to Blaney’s tail-tank.
Making a run to the inside of turns three and four on lap eight, Kaeding edged out Blaney at the line before surging through turn one to take the top spot for good.
From there, the only threats to Kaeding’s run to the checkers were slower traffic and a caution on the 14th round, when Justin Henderson slowed from the third position to a stop off turn four.
Though Blaney had a chance at Kaeding just before the caution, when traffic was wreaking havoc with the leader, TK was simply too strong once the green flag returned. He pulled away as Blaney began to fade, allowing Jason Johnson to climb to the runner-up position.
Over the course of the final four laps, Johnson traded slide jobs with Terry McCarl before knocking down the runner-up spot for good – ultimately compiling enough points across the night (qualifying, heat race and feature) to place himself second on the grid for Saturday’s championship A-Main.
“My guys have been working their tails off for the last month,” Johnson said. “They did an outstanding job again tonight. This was a good run tonight, and definitely good for our confidence. We’ll see what we can do on Saturday, but we’ve got good placement for it for sure.”
McCarl finished third, bouncing back from an engine swap following his heat race, followed by Kerry Madsen and Blaney.
Brent Marks and James McFadden were sixth and seventh, respectively, followed by Brad Sweet, who charged from 21st to eighth after advancing out of the B-Main.
Mark Dobmeier and Cap Henry rounded out the top 10.
Sweet kicked off the night by setting quick time in preliminary action for the Knoxville Nationals for the third time in his career and the second-straight year, clicking off a time of 15.465 seconds.
Rager Phillips, Ryan Bunton, Brent Marks, Jac Haudenschild and Brooke Tatnell each won their respective 10-lap heat races.
Jon Agan wired the field to take the victory in the 10-lap C-Main, while Sweet made a last-lap pass on David Gravel to notch the win in the 12-lap Last Chance Showdown.
Following two nights of preliminary competition, Wednesday qualifier Daryn Pittman has accrued the highest points total out of the 107 drivers attempting to qualify for this year’s Nationals with 485 out of a possible 500, giving him the pole position for Saturday’s $150,000-to-win, 50-lap feature event.
Johnson will start to his outside, with Madsen and Jamie Veal on row two. For the full breakdown of the 16 drivers locked into the championship finale, click here.