KNOXVILLE, Iowa — David Gravel said on Thursday night that he was glad to have the opportunity to win the NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals.
On Saturday night, he sealed the deal.
Driving the Jason Johnson Racing Axalta No. 41, Gravel took the lead from Aaron Reutzel on lap 14 and controlled the remainder of the race to become the second first-time winner of the prestigious event in as many years.
In similar fashion to Brad Sweet last year, Gravel won Sunday’s Capitani Classic, his preliminary night feature and the 50-lap Nationals main event.
Gravel banked $150,000 for giving the JJR team, owner Bobbi Jackson and crew chief Phil Dietz their second victory in the past four runnings of the Knoxville Nationals.
Team namesake Jason Johnson won the race in 2016, but was killed in crash in July of 2018.
After the lap-25 fuel stop, Gravel led the field back to the green flag and no one got close to him as the final half of the race ran without a yellow flag.
“I don’t know what to say. It was a dream week,” Gravel said. “Brad Sweet killed it last year and we kind of repeated what he did. To have Jeff Gordon and Axalta with us and Bobbi (Johnson) to keep this team going and Phil Dietz busting his butt. He lost his best friend and kept this going. It made it all worth it. It just feels amazing. I am numb.”
The early laps of the race saw a battle for the lead between polesitter Aaron Reutzel and Joey Saldana. Reutzel led the first lap before Saldana took the top spot on lap two, only to give the spot back on the fourth circuit in turn four.
The caution flag waved on the seventh lap for the slowing car of 10-time Nationals champion Donny Schatz, who went to the work area. He was eventually able to return and tagged the rear of the field for the restart.
The race resumed with Reutzel leading Saldana and Gravel, but things didn’t stay that way for long. Gravel quickly dispatched Saldana, on the 10th circuit before turning his attention to Reutzel.
On the 14th circuit Gravel moved to the front of the field, using a slide job in turns three and four to take the lead away from Reutzel. He led until the field reached the halfway point and the red flag for fuel, with Reutzel, Daryn Pittman, Tim Kaeding and Tim Shaffer following.
When the race resumed Gravel continued to lead, but behind him Pittman shot past Reutzel to take second. Gravel kept the point as Pittman tried to pursue, with Gravel reaching the tail of the field on lap 33.
Gravel was able to manage the traffic seamlessly, stretching his lead over Pittman. Behind the lead duo Logan Schuchart, who started 22nd after qualifying for the A-Main via Friday’s Hard Knox feature, was quickly gaining ground. On lap 41 Schuchart moved into third and quickly began to track down Pittman for second.
All of that was happening well behind Gravel, who comfortably took the checkered flag to earn his first Knoxville Nationals victory and the second for Jason Johnson Racing.
“I wasn’t that tired in the car but after the checkered flag I feel like I have boulders on my shoulders,” Gravel said. “It’s surreal. It doesn’t feel real at all. Happy to get the lead there in the first half and we made a change at the red and it made the car better. We snugged the car up a little bit.
“Thank you Jason for building this team.”
Schuchart was able to use a last-lap pass to steal second away from Pittman. The runner-up result netted Schuchart and Shark Racing a $75,000 payday.
“To start off the week the way we did and then to come back swinging like we did, that all starts with my grandfather (Bobby Allen),” Schuchart said. “Second at Eldora (in the Kings Royal) hurt, but I am really proud of this one. Congratulations to David Gravel and the whole JJR team. It is awesome what they have overcome to win this for a second time. But I’m really proud of my team.
“It’s a learning experience. We get better and better every year. Our team didn’t quit. We got the other car out and it ran good again.”
Pittman crossed the line in third, taking home $35,000 in the Roth Motorsports No. 83. He admitted that while he was happy with the finish, a part of him was disappointed.
“On one hand I am extremely happy and really proud of this Roth Motorsports team and the effort we’ve put in this week and that we’ve put in at Knoxville Raceway all year long,” Pittman said. “On the other hand, I am pretty disappointed. That’s the best race car I’ve ever had here and the best chance I’ve ever had to win this race. He was just better in lapped traffic. He runs this place fearlessly and honestly moves around on the track as well as anyone I’ve seen in a long time.”
Tim Kaeding finished fourth for Sides Motorsports, with Reutzel finishing fifth after starting from the pole.
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