KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Brad Sweet put an exclamation point on his first 5-hour Energy Knoxville Nationals victory, holding off 10-time Nationals winner Donny Schatz on a two-lap dash to the checkered flag before a sold-out crowd Saturday night at Knoxville Raceway.
Sweet started three features at the historic Marion County Fairgrounds half-mile oval during a six-day period and won all three of them aboard his familiar Kasey Kahne Racing No. 49.
Sweet picked up a check for $150,000 for the biggest victory of his career and the first Knoxville Nationals win for team owner Kasey Kahne after having won the Capitani Classic on Sunday night and his preliminary feature on Thursday.
“I have been dreaming about this and working hard for it,” Sweet said. “To hold off these two guys, the best two drivers in this business, it took every ounce of my being. It’s a little dream came true for me. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and will probably drink a lot of beer.”
Sweet started on the pole and dominated the first half of the 50-lap feature, while Schatz and Kyle Larson fought a thrilling battle for second, trading slide jobs on numerous occasions.
When the red flag came out for the mandatory midway fuel stop in the 58thrunning of sprint car racing’s biggest race, it was clearly a three-man race with Sweet leading Larson and Schatz.
Sweet motored away on the restart with Larson and Schatz giving chase. Schatz ran down Larson and moved into second on lap 41. While Schatz slowly began cutting into Sweet’s lead aboard the Tony Stewart Racing No. 15, he was running out of laps when Kerry Madsen flipped his No. 2m in turn three with two laps remaining, bringing the third red flag of the main event.
That set up a two-lap dash to the checkered flag with Sweet leading Schatz and Larson on a single file restart.
At Doug Clark’s green flag, Sweet dove to the bottom of the track and Schatz went to the top. It was as close as anyone got to Schatz the entire race as the pair ran side by side through turns two and three on lap 50, but Sweet stuck to the bottom and as the leaders drag raced off turn four to the checkered flag, Sweet won by a mere .133 seconds.
“I felt like if I was going to win, I was going to be able to hit the bottom,” Sweet said. “This guy here (Schatz) has won a lot of races by being able to run his car all over the race track and I knew I was going to be able to do that.
Schatz finished second for the sixth time. It was also the 16thconsecutive year he has finished first or second in the Nationals.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted that green white checkered or not, I knew I would have to hit the bottom to hold him off,” Sweet said. “I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. I told myself just hit the bottom the best you can. I probably slowed up just enough to make the exit right and it was just enough. It doesn’t matter how much you win by as long as you win.”
Sweet said he knew from watching Schatz over the years that he’d have to be able to run the bottom groove to win the Knoxville Nationals.
“If I wanted to win the race I was going to have to go somewhere he wasn’t,” Schatz said. “I just went to the top and there was enough there. It was a little slippery but it held there. I really thought I had a shot at Brad, but he did a good job. He didn’t make any mistakes and he got there first.”
Larson came home third, putting his Paul Silva-prepared No. 57 on the podium for the second straight year.
“That was a lot of fun,” Larson said. “I felt like we were the three best cars all week. I am so happy for Brad.
All Star Circuit of Champions point leader Aaron Reutzel came home fourth with Tim Kaeding, aboard a second Jason Sides machine, racing from 10thto fifth.
Gio Scelzi was named rookie of the year after becoming the youngest driver to start the Nationals A-Main at age 16. He finished 14thon Saturday night.
Sweet, meanwhile, was on top of the world.
“This is what I worked for all year,” he said. “I am going to enjoy this win. It is really special. There is just a short list of guys who have won it.”
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