KNOXVILLE, Iowa — The opening night of the 52nd Goodyear Knoxville Nationals had a little bit of everything.
First there was a two-hour rain delay to start the event and then there was a lot of heartbreak followed by one incredible moment of triumph for a racer making his first Knoxville Nationals start.
In the end, 20-year-old Kyle Larson added yet another jewel to his crown, taking the opening night preliminary feature in a winged sprint car at legendary Knoxville Raceway one night after banking $15,000 for winning the Ultimate Challenge non-winged sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway.
Heavy rain that moved through the area in the late afternoon leaving the track fast and narrow, making it difficult to pass with many of the top qualifiers failing to transfer through the heat races with Steve Kinser among those who failed to make it into the feature.
Larson started third and rode in that position as Davey Heskin controlled the first half of the race. Jason Sides grabbed the lead from Heskin on a lap-14 restart, but blew a tire and flipped on lap 19. Larson, who had passed Heskin, inherited the lead and managed to keep Rico Abreu’s No. 1k ahead of the field to the checkered flag.
“Sides blew a tire. I was really lucky,” Larson explained. “We were really good in clean air. Those restarts were kind of getting me nervous there. I could see the 15 (Schatz) inching up on the board and I was nervous about that.”
He didn’t need to worry. Larson controlled a green-white-checkered restart and beat Heskin to the checkered flag with Schatz working his way to a third-place finish.
Larson, who has won in midgets, non-winged sprint cars, winged sprint cars, late models and stock cars this season, added a Knoxville Raceway to a resume that includes the Gold Cup Race of Champions and the Belleville Midget Nationals among others.
“Getting a win at Knoxville is so big, but it is only prelim night,” said Larson, who has a driver-development team with NASCAR’s Chip Ganassi Racing. “It will be a lot better if we can win it on Saturday night, but it will be a whole lot tougher. I think we have a car good enough that we can get up front. It is so cool winning here at Knoxville. I grew up watching these races. This is my first Nationals. I have been racing sprint cars for six years. I’m glad to be able to run here and I’m glad to be able to win here.
“This is my first Nationals and I have been running sprint cars for six years and I am glad to get a win here in my first try.”
Heskin, who races weekly at Knoxville Raceway, said his engine stumbled on restarts. “When I hit the gas, it didn’t go for a solid five seconds or so,” Heskin said. “I just held on and got what we could and hopefully we are in the show now.”
Schatz, the five-time and defending Nationals champion, qualified 12th to start the night, but made a daring move on the first lap of his heat to get into a qualified position, which he parlayed into a third-place feature finish.
“You can’t be patient on a night like tonight,” Schatz explained. “There were a lot of good cars in the B main and struggled to get through. You couldn’t be patient. There was no patience there. It was go for it. That’s what we did, we got an opening and that set the stage for us tonight.”
Craig Dollansky charged from 22nd (and the B main) to finish fourth with Lucas Wolfe finishing fifth.
Jonathan Allard was second with 475 and Schatz tied fast-qualifier Joey Saldana for third with 471 points.
Heartbreaking moments belonged to Sides, Brian Paulus, who suffered a flat tire while running second with two laps remaining, and Randy Hannagan, who broke an oil fitting while running second.
Meanwhile, 12-time Knoxville Nationals champion Steve Kinser failed to make it out of his heat race or the B main and faces an uphill climb to make what would be his 35th consecutive A main Saturday night.
However, Kinser may elect to utilize the new Friday night format, which will offer four transfer spots into Saturday night’s A main for the first time.
Hurry and enter! Winners will be announced Saturday at the Knoxville Nationals finale! Chance to win a $2,500 VIP prize package to the 2013 Knoxville Nationals and be on Donny Schatz’s pit crew!