KNOXVILLE, Iowa — The names Jeff Gordon and Mark Webber were thrown around the Jason Johnson Racing camp all week during the 59th annual NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals.
However, when the dust settled Saturday night at Knoxville Raceway, David Gravel was the only name that mattered.
The 27-year-old Connecticut driver became the third first-time winner of the world’s biggest sprint car race in the past four seasons and gave the JJR operation its second victory in that same span. Jason Johnson won the Nationals with the team he built in 2016, but was killed in a crash last June at Wisconsin’s Beaver Dam Raceway.
His widow, Bobbi, decided to keep the team together and after running a limited schedule, Gravel was hired as the full-time driver.
While Gravel played a key role in keeping Johnson’s legacy alive, the $150,000 triumph was the coming out party that Gravel had been chasing.
In 2017, Gravel started on the pole aboard the CJB Motorsports entry and led until a blown engine ended his night. While he’d been a player in the Nationals A-main numerous times, he’d always come up short.
This time, Gravel, who has a reputation for driving hard, was patient and calculating in keeping the No. 41 under him throughout 50 laps of the half-mile oval.
“I put myself in position a lot of times after prelim nights and never really had anything to show for it,” Gravel acknowledged. “My best finish here was 10th. I feel like I’ve always been pretty good here, but no results to show for it. Obviously, the JJR No. 41 gets around good here and Phil (Dietz, crew chief) did a great job. It’s just a dream week.”
Gravel was patient early on, starting second and falling back to third.
“I got a bad jump and we were detuned a little bit in hot laps,” Gravel explained. “I didn’t feel fast around the top. Joey (Saldana) had a fast car in the beginning and I didn’t get too excited. I knew if I fell back to fourth or fifth that it would be hard to get back up there and contend for the win.
“I fell back to third there and then got by Joey and Aaron didn’t know where to run in three and four,” he continued. “He was running the bottom and the top and sliding himself. I was able to commit to the top and get some runs on him and it all worked out. I just let the race come to me.”
Gravel took the lead on lap 14 and held the point at the halfway fueling break. From there he was never seriously challenged, but did have some close calls in lapped traffic.
“I thought things were going to get hairy there a couple of times,” Gravel noted. “The 18 (Ian Madsen) hit the wall and protected the bottom and the 09 (Matt Juhl) pulled square out in front of me. I knew I was losing time on those laps and I don’t know if Daryn was close to me or not, but it was getting sketchy.
“I was able to recover and put those guys behind me. There were definitely some close calls. There were 25 straight laps with no yellows,” he added. “You don’t know if they are close to you or not. I just had to keep rolling, but I think I set a pace where I was kind of under control in open track and then turned it up a bit in lapped traffic.”
Gravel said he tried not to think about misfortune that dispelled him in the past.
“I was so focused on trying to make good laps. Obviously, I was thinking about it a little bit, whether or not something was going to break,” he acknowledged. “It’s a brand-new engine. It only has four or five nights on it. It’s something a little bit different. We had a shock fall off in the Capitani … and you just don’t know what can happen.
“The guys dotted their I’s and crossed their t’s. We had a stagger issue on our prelim night, but we checked everything out tonight 110 percent.”
Gravel followed Brad Sweet’s lead and became the second consecutive driver to win the Capitani Classic, his preliminary night feature and Saturday’s night’s A-main.
“I always have confidence here, but to win the Capitani and to win your prelim night just makes you feel good about yourself,” Gravel said. “It’s just a confidence booster. All three nights, we had the car pretty similar.
“A lot of times you are out there just searching, but we knew what we had. I’ve been there on Saturday searching and then you try to make it better on the break and you can make it worse.”
On his night, Gravel knew the sacrifices of those who made it happen for him.
“For Bobbi to keep this team going and Phil Dietz is busting his butt. He lost his best friend and kept this going,” Gravel said. “It made it all worth it. It just feels amazing. I am numb. I wasn’t that tired in the car but after the checkered flag I feel like I have boulders on my shoulders.
“It’s surreal. It doesn’t feel real at all.”
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