I have always felt that the two qualifying nights at the Knoxville Nationals are the most dramatic nights in dirt track racing and this year definitely supported that theory as Thursday’s show was again full of storylines.
First of all, how about this for irony? The 50th edition of the Knoxville Nationals had fifty cars sign in on Wednesday night, and fifty cars again for Thursday night.
Steve Kinser posted the fastest time in qualifying and then wasted no time moving into a qualifying position in the first heat where he wound up third behind Ricky Logan and Stevie Smith. With the most points going into the A-Main, Kinser lined up eighth but was never a factor as he finished the race in 11th putting him fifth overall on the final points list.
Kinser’s Tony Stewart Racing teammate, Donny Schatz, qualified seventh and then got an incredible jump on the start of the second heat to go from row four to third through the first two corners. Schatz was then able to slip by Dean Jacobs on a late restart to take second and it looked like his drive for five straight championships was well on its way. We’ll tell you more about how things went for Donny in the feature further down the line.
Danny Lasoski was the second fastest qualifier on the evening, but pulled up lame with a blown motor early in the second heat race. “The Dude” came back to win the C-Main and he then raced from 21st to 12th in the B-Main. On a night that started out so well, Lasoski’s 399 points ranked 42nd overall landing him in Saturday’s C-Main.
In heat race number three Lance Dewease and Rager Phillips wanted to make sure that everybody felt like they were getting their money’s worth as the two drivers swapped the lead back and forth at least six times before Dewease shut the door on Phillips to take the win. Greg Hodnett moved past Phillips with a lap to go for second.
The fourth heat got off to a tough start when Sam Hafertepe Jr. and Greg Wilson collided off of turn two sending both cars to the pits. The red flag appeared again on lap four when the right rear tire on Paul McMahan’s #91 shredded in turn three and he crashed hard. Once back to green “The Wild Child” fans celebrated as Jac Haudenschild ran away with the victory.
Sammy Swindell and Brian Brown started from row four in the fifth heat and while Brown moved quickly toward the front on the opening lap, Swindell faded to ninth. Two laps later it looked like Sammy was not going anywhere, but then something clicked and the Big Game Tree Stands #1 hooked up and started passing a car a lap. It has been a long time since I have seen a driver fade at the start only to come back and race his way to the front and with a caution on lap eight that was all the Swindell needed to pass Luke Hall on the restart for the win.
Tim Kaeding, who dropped out of the first heat with a sick motor, and Hafertepe waged a thrilling battle behind Lasoski in the C-Main with Kaeding taking the second transfer ticket to the B-Main. “TK” then made a strong run from row eleven to finish sixth garnering enough points to make him the 50th and final automatic “transfer” to Saturday’s show.
McMahan recovered nicely from his wreck to finish second in the B-Main behind Ian Madsen who appeared to smoke a motor at the checkers. Dusty Zomer was third while the battle for the fourth and final transfer position gave the crowd a thrill. Josh Schneiderman was running the cushion in fourth when Tyler Walker threw a slider at him with two laps remaining. Schneiderman maintained his composure and when Walker went to the bottom in three and four on the final lap, Josh rode the cushion off of turn four and then held his foot to the floor as Walker drifted up the track down the front stretch. The two made contact just before the finish line with Schneiderman taking the position by a car-length.
On the first attempt to start the A-Main Mark Shirshekan spun and on the second try Ohio driver Luke Hall took a tumble in turn one. The third attempt stuck as Swindell passed pole-sitter Skip Jackson coming off of turn four to take the lead on lap one. Donny Schatz soon moved to second and picked up the chase on Sammy with the two pulling even through heavy lapped traffic. Swindell made a nice move to pin Schatz behind a slower car in turn one and then pulled away apparently headed for a convincing victory. On the final lap though, as Sammy was racing down the backstretch the right rear tire went flat on Mike Moore’s car in turn three and the caution waved setting up a green-white-checkered restart. Swindell had a great jump on Schatz on the restart and the crowd was cheering on Skip Jackson who was making a run at Schatz for second on the final lap before the caution waved again for Moore who had spun in turn three. While under caution it became obvious why Swindell got such a jump on Schatz as the right rear tire on the four-time defending Nationals champion was losing air and he was doing everything he could during the caution laps to try to keep some air pressure in it.
This time it would be just a one-lap run and as Sammy pulled away for the win, Schatz was a sitting duck for Skip Jackson and Brian Brown. Both drivers worked around Schatz down the back straightaway and then when Jackson’s car ran out of fuel off of turn four Brown pulled ahead to take second and tabulate more qualifying points than anybody else. Skip held on for third while Stevie Smith nipped Schatz at the line for fourth. While it was a disappointing finish for Schatz he was lucky that he did not need another lap as the tire exploded in turn one. The crowd went crazy with Sammy’s win and Donny’s misfortune, an exact opposite reaction that you would have heard here not that long ago.
Six drivers, Brown, Swindell, Greg Hodnett, Schatz, Kinser and Daryn Pittman tallied more points tonight than Wednesday’s top point man Tim Shaffer. Shane Stewart is eighth, Jason Johnson ninth and Dale Blaney tenth while the remaining ten drivers who are locked into Saturday’s A-Main are Kerry Madsen, Skip Jackson, Lynton Jeffrey, Jason Sides, Dusty Zomer, Davey Heskin, Chad Kemenah, Joey Saldana, Erin Crocker and Brandon Wimmer. Interesting to note that of the twenty A-Main qualifiers five are Knoxville track regulars while five are World of Outlaw regulars.
Fans were also treated tonight to a feature race by the flat track motorcycles and the Legend Cars. The motorcycles will be in action here at Knoxville on September 17th and 18th so tonight served as a bit of a teaser for that event. I believe that the Legend Car race had something to do with raising money for peace officers who have been injured on duty, however the organizers of this event did not provide a single bit of information to the trio of announcers. So, by default, nobody in the stands knew what the heck was going on either. Hopefully they raised some money for their cause though!
Outlaw drivers Jason Meyers, Lucas Wolfe, Kraig Kinser and Sam Hafertepe are all on the list to compete in Friday’s Non-Qualifer program, plus the three Scrambles and the World Challenge should make for another interesting night of action at Knoxville.