LAS VEGAS — If the rest of the World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series races this season are anything like Wednesday night, fans across the country are in for a treat.
Fighting extreme gusts of wind all night, defending series champion Donny Schatz outlasted future NASCAR star Kyle Larson to garner the opening night at The Dirt Track at Las Vegas. The win was Schatz’s series-leading seventh at the half mile and more significantly, it was his 125th career World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series feature victory.
“I think it’s more important to be win No. 1 on the season,” he said after becoming only the fourth driver to ever reach the 125-win milestone. “It’s always hardest to get the first win of the season out of the way.”
Schatz started on the pole of the dash after the No. 8 pill — the highest possible —was randomly selected for the third consecutive race to invert the first four rows. However, he was passed by Jason Sides in the closing laps of the dash, giving Sides the pole position for the 30-lap feature.
That didn’t last for long as Schatz rocketed around the high groove to take the lead exiting turn four on the opening lap. He maintained a several car length advantage as Brian Brown battled Sides for the runner-up position during the first eight laps before entering traffic.
As Schatz closed on the back of Logan Forler to put him one lap down, the first of seven cautions bunched the field back up. Schatz chose the inside line on the double-file restart – as every driver did on the restarts all night — and he continued to maintain the top spot as several cautions plagued the continuity of the event.
“When I got on the top I felt ok, but the wind just had mass havoc,” Schatz said. “One corner it turned you too much and the other corner it got you tight, so I could just never get it the way I wanted to.”
Sides, who was committed to the bottom as Schatz continually drove the top groove, pulled into the lead exiting turn two on lap 14 only to see a caution for Paul McMahan relegate the running order to the previous lap. That gave the lead back to Schatz, who faced a new challenger several laps later.
Larson, who has picked up a World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series win in each of the past two seasons, used the bottom groove to slide under Schatz and Sides on a restart of lap 18 for the top spot. Following a caution for a spin by Steve Kinser in turn one on the ensuing lap, Larson maintained the lead on the bottom line with Schatz within striking distance on the high groove.
But just as it looked like Larson had enough for the victory, his car stumbled in turn two on lap 28. Schatz capitalized and regained the lead at the flag stand amidst traffic.
“I was making a ton of mistakes in the beginning of the race and halfway through I got settled down,” Larson said. “I caught traffic and started running out of fuel. It was stumbling on the exits. I missed the bottom once and Donny got by me.”
The duo raced side by side for the next lap with Schatz again narrowly edging Larson as they were shown the white flag with traffic racing wheel to wheel directly in front of them.
“Going down the last lap there was a hole there on the bottom and I went there because I knew those guys would be better there,” Schatz said. “I just couldn’t take the top anymore. I wore everything out.”
Schatz had an advantage exiting turn two, but Larson stayed within a car length as both dove to the bottom in turn three — inches apart.
“I knew it was going to stumble off (turn) two and I was just going to try to beat him into (turn) three, but it stumbled a little too bad and I could only just get to his inside,” Larson said. “If I could have just not stumbled as bad Donny would have not been able to block me and he would have had to take the long way around the corner and I might have been able to beat him to the line.”
Schatz got a little more traction as the drivers slid through turn four and it propelled him to the historic victory. Sides, who was only a couple of car lengths behind the battle for the lead in the closing laps, powered to the top groove in turns three and four on the final lap. His momentum allowed him to drive by Larson for the runner-up spot in the final 100 feet.
“When they both went to the bottom behind a lapped car I just ran it in as hard as I could and just tried to run the top, the middle, anywhere that would stick,” Sides said. “(The track) was kind of rough and had some holes in it, but it made for an exciting race I think. The top and the bottom, we were just racing all over. I thought it was pretty good racing myself.”
Tim Kaeding, the 2012 World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series winner at The Dirt Track at Las Vegas, finished fourth with Kerry Madsen charging from 25th to fifth.