KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Let’s just all be honest here; we’re living in the Donny Schatz era at Knoxville Raceway, whether we like it or not.
Not even ‘The King of the Outlaws’, Steve Kinser himself, was able to put together a stretch run at the Sprint Car Capital of the World during the 5-Hour Energy Knoxville Nationals like the one that Schatz has been on since 2006.
He’s won nine of the past 11 Nationals and claimed $1.35 million in winnings from those victories in the $150,000-to-win championship A-Feature.
After winning the his first two Nationals in 2006 and 2007 in his family-owned car, Schatz hooked up with Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing in 2008 and promptly won that year’s event by passing Jason Meyers with six laps to go.
From then to now, the only two times Schatz has failed to win the Nationals were when he finished as the runner-up to Tim Shaffer in 2010 and again last year, when Jason Johnson fed him a right-rear wheel inside of five laps to go and then held off Schatz’s final charge to win the Nationals for the first time.
Though Schatz was gracious in defeat, it was clear the loss ate at him.
“We did everything we could,” Schatz said that night. “Jason [Johnson] did a great job. I didn’t think you could run that hard a pace for 50 laps, but he did, and once he got out there, I tried everything to catch him and just couldn’t do it. It’s tough to lose one that close, but we’ll be back.”
In total, Schatz his 15 top-two finishes in his 19 A-Main appearances at the Knoxville Nationals, with five second-place finishes (2000, 2002-2003, 2005, 2010, 2016) to go along with his nine wins (2006-2009, 2011-2015).
His career record in the Nationals alone is a staggering 16 top-fives and 17 top-10s in those 19 starts.
The only two times Schatz has ever finished outside the front five rows were in 2001, when he was involved in a crash on the opening lap and finished 23rd, and a disappointing 12th-place effort in 2004.
Oh, by the way? One of his nine wins made Nationals history, when he became the first driver in event history to win the race after transferring from the B-Main, driving from 21st on the grid to score perhaps the most improbable Nationals victory since the turn of the millennium.
The question is simple: can anyone do what Jason Johnson did last year and beat Schatz?
The odds would say it’s unlikely. In addition to his sterling track record in Nationals competition, Schatz has a combined 25-career feature wins on the half-mile dirt track, the most recent of which came in June when he topped the final night of the Brownell’s Big Guns Bash with the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series.
He’s scored 15 wins with the Outlaws this season, including that win at Knoxville and victories at the $50,000-to-win Kings Royal at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway and the $25,000-to-win Don Martin Memorial Silver Cup at Lernerville Speedway in Pennsylvania.
Suffice it to say that Schatz performs at his peak during the ‘Month of Money’ for sprint car racing.
And with Knoxville being the finale to that unofficial stretch, and another $150,000 on the line come Saturday night, there’s little doubt that he’ll come into the Knoxville Nationals ready to perform at that peak level again.
After all, after last year? He’s got a little extra motivation to get back on top.
And yet, people continue to ask if he’s the best there ever was (and is) at Knoxville. People continue to question the fact that he’s proven he can win from virtually anywhere on the grid there.
I know that Steve Kinser has 12 Nationals titles, and that Schatz is still chasing that record, but let me be frank.
Sustained excellence is harder to come by that cumulative excellence, and Donny Schatz has sustained more excellence at Knoxville Raceway over the last decade and a half than any driver I’ve ever seen — and I’ve watched Steve Kinser run plenty of features myself in the past as well.
He may not be the best ever at Knoxville in everyone’s mind, but he’s certainly the best there in mine.
And when you’re comparing anyone’s career record to the King? That’s saying a lot.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, the Performance Motorsports Network, Scorpion Radio Group, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 23-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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