KNOXVILLE, Iowa — As sure a thing as Donny Schatz capturing the $150,000 5-hour Energy Knoxville Nationals championship A-Main has been over the past decade at Knoxville Raceway, it’s become almost as sure a bet to have Shane Stewart standing in victory lane during the Wednesday night opener.
Stewart won the opening preliminary night of the Nationals for the third straight year on Wednesday night, driving his No. 2 Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation/Larson Marks Racing entry past Jeff Swindell on lap 10 of the 25-lap contest and holding Schatz at bay through the second-half of the event to notch his fifth career Knoxville qualifier win.
Wednesday was also Stewart’s second consecutive win at Knoxville Raceway, after having also topped the KCP Capitani Classic on Sunday night.
“I hope you are interviewing me one more time this week,” Stewart said. “I have a great car right now, but I know that we’re going to have to pick it up just a little bit more here to beat that 15 (Schatz). He’s so good here on the bottom. He’s so good at changing lanes without scrubbing off any speed, so I’ve got to get better at that if I’m going to beat him.”
Wayne Johnson started from the pole of the feature, but it was Swindell who motored out to the early lead as Stewart charged from fourth. Stewart dispatched Johnson on the third round, and then quickly set his sights on Swindell out front.
The slide job didn’t work for Stewart through turns one and two on lap nine, but he quickly regrouped to take the spot for good the next time through, forcing Swindell to crack the throttle and taking off in a hurry.
A caution flag flew on lap 12 for a wayward wheel from Lynton Jeffrey’s machine, and it allowed Schatz a chance at Stewart after moving up to the runner-up spot. That chance would come courtesy of a side-by-side duel entering turn one of lap 14, when Schatz outgunned Stewart entering the corner but couldn’t hold the position.
Schatz would have one final chance at Stewart after a yellow with eight to go, but could not mount the charge and was forced to watch as Stewart motored home to a 1.390 second margin at the checkered flag.
“Timing was everything tonight,” Stewart added. “Those restarts were a real challenge because I knew he was going to be coming on the bottom. It gets nerve wracking when you see the flashbulbs going off on all the cars because you know that somebody is getting close to you.”
Despite missing the ultimate goal by one step on Wednesday, Schatz admitted he isn’t worried about what it will take to win on Saturday because the conditions will change drastically over the course of the next three days.
“It’ll be a different race track on Saturday for sure. We’ve been trying to find speed on the top of this place ever since we’ve been coming here,” said Schatz. “It seems like there’s nights you can do it, and nights you can’t, but we know what to do to run the bottom, but right now, we’re just curious of what it’s going to do on Saturday and which way it’s going to go. Right now, that’s the million-dollar question.”
Current Arctic Cat All Stars Circuit of Champions point leader Chad Kemenah brought the Hunter Racing No. 10H home in third.
“This (result) is good for us going into Saturday, and takes a little bit of pressure off,” said Kemenah. “Maybe on Saturday, we can be just as consistent or a little bit better than we were tonight, but I’m pretty happy with how we ran.”
Fast qualifier Daryn Pittman and Jamie Veal rounded out the top five.
Greg Hodnett, Swindell, Johnson, Rico Abreu and Dusty Zomer were the balance of the top 10.
Pittman topped the points standings for the night with 485 out of a possible 500 markers. Veal was second with 477, followed by Schatz and Kemenah with 476 apiece.