BARBERVILLE, Fla. — Donny Schatz raised his Florida batting average to three for four Wednesday night at Volusia Speedway Park, leading a Tony Stewart Racing sweep of the top two spots as the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions kicked off the sprint car portion of the DIRTcar Nationals.
With the crowd up and screaming, polesitter Schatz bested temporary teammate Kyle Larson, up from 15th, by a wheel.
Schatz’s front row companion, Chad Kemenah, was third ahead of Kasey Kahne Racing teammates Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, with Kraig Kinser, who had to run the B-main and lined up 20th, coming home sixth.
The 30-lap feature was interrupted by two red flags with Joey Saldana’s series of flips off the backstretch on lap 17 by far the scariest. With sliders the key to passing on the extremely fast surface, Jason Johnson and Saldana got together coming off turn two, with Saldana vaulting both the outside wall and the wheel fence right in front of the backstretch pit bleachers. His gyrating car hit the lower row of the bleachers, then vaulted over the adjacent fence and hit the boom of a tow truck parked in the staging lane.
Amazingly, the lower bleacher area was empty and the safety crew vacated the area, so no one was injured, including Saldana.
“He was lucky,” tipped the safety crew. “His roll cage hit the boom but it could just as well have been him.”
Kemenah led on the initial start, with Sweet jumping from fourth to second, but Schatz blasted down the inside when they hit the backstretch to take second. By lap five the leaders were in traffic, with Schatz getting alongside the leader two laps later. He couldn’t put him away that time but on lap 11 he threw a big slider on Kemenah as they hit turn one and hit the backstretch with the lead.
Sweet also got by Kemenah, with Saldana and Johnson battling each other as they drew in on Kemenah, but before they could catch him they tangled and Saldana took his flier.
On the resulting restart, Pittman shot by both Caleb Armstrong and Sweet to take third, with the low flying Larson then entering the picture, throwing a slider on Sweet to stand fourth when Justin Henderson drew another red when he flipped on the frontstretch.
Larson, wheeling one of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 sprint cars, began working on Pittman as soon as the green reappeared and finally put him away on lap 21.
One more yellow, to retrieve a flag from the frontstretch, closed the field up yet again on lap 23.
From then on, fans had to split their attention between Larson’s pursuit of Schatz and Kemenah and Kinser’s charge through the field to challenge Sweet for fifth. Larson got to second with two to go but by then Schatz was back in traffic and he had to contend with lapped cars as well.
“I didn’t see Larson but I knew he would be there,” said Schatz. “I tried to time a lapped car and pass him where he’d block Kyle at the end but the lapped car got messed up and I caught him too soon, so it didn’t work. I’m glad we pulled it out, as we’ve got a lot of people from our sponsor, Arctic Cat, here tonight. It’s a great way to start the week here.”
“I needed the finish line to be down just a little further,” said Larson with a laugh. “We got going good there. I could pull the trigger and slide guys and still stay fast on the straightaways. It’s killing me that I can’t run this car the rest of the week but my schedule doesn’t work. Christopher Bell will be in it from here on.”
Brian Brown turned fast time.
Donny Schatz, Kyle Larson, Chad Kemenah, Daryn Pittman, Brad Sweet, Kraig Kinser, Dale Blaney, Shane Stewart, Lucas Wolfe, Paul McMahan, David Gravel, Kerry Madsen, Caleb Helms, Greg Hodnett, Ian Madsen, Rico Abreu, Mark Dobmeier, Caleb Armstrong, T.J. Michael, Brent Marks, Joey Saldana, Jason Johnson, Brian Brown, Aaron Reutzel, Justin Henderson.