KNOXVILLE, IOWA – The 59th Annual Knoxville Nationals, which were held on August 10 are truly the sprint car version of the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR’s Daytona 500. While every race is important to racers and race teams, there is just something extra special about the prestigious competition, with the energy level electric in the small Midwestern town of around 7,500 residents every August because of this race.
They welcome the sprint car world to their hometown; maybe what makes it special is the greats that have won it in the past like Kenny Weld, Joe Saldana, Jan Opperman, Eddie Leavitt, Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Doug Wolfgang, Eddie Leavitt, Donny Schatz, Bobby Allen, Brad Sweet, Mark Kinser and Jason Johnson in 2016.
It seems that winning the Knoxville Nationals is unquestionably the most coveted trophy in sprint car racing, bar none.
Drivers and race teams dream of winning this race, but very few do as only 25 drivers in the history of the race have stood in Victory Lane since Roy Robbins held the checkered flag after winning the first Knoxville Nationals in 1961.
After this year’s edition, add the name of David Gravel of Watertown to that honored list, but we’re getting ahead of the story here.
There are only 24 starting spots in the A-Main field; there are no provisional starting spots, as drivers have to earn their way into the field every time they hit the track on qualifying night.
Gravel did just that on August 8 in his Jason Johnson Racing #41 Maxim car, accumulating 481 points after winning the feature on his qualifying night to share the front row on Saturday night with Aaron Reutzel.
Philip Dietz (Crew Chief) along with Tyler Elliott, Patrick Dudzinski, Travis Marsch and Chris Layher worked extremely hard all week to give Gravel the best car they could so he could do what he does best.
They did a terrific job and the only thing between them and adding their driver’s name to the prestigious winner’s list was 50 solid laps and a little luck.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Before the racing got started on the track, Gravel’s team was honored with a few other wins for their cohesive planning and team efforts for the week.
First they won the 2019 Best Appearing Car; then the team won the 2019 Best Dressed Team. Dressed in their gear and customized Vans with the inscription FOREVER41 on the back of the left shoe and JJR41 on the back of the right shoe, every member of the team, including those at the merchandise trailer, were all coordinated and in sync from top to bottom just like team owner Bobbi Johnson planned.
Not a bad way to start out the day for the team.
After pulling into their pit area, ironically Team Gravel were in stall 41, another sign that there were mysterious forces at play.
Reutzel and Gravel brought the field out of turn four in their two-by-two starting order with Gravel controlling the high side as Reutzel handle the low line.
Gravel would take the lead on lap 14 and would start to show his strength as he built a good size lead when the planned yellow was thrown at the halfway point of the race for the teams to refuel and make minor mid-race adjustments.
It was Gravel at the front with Reutzel holding off tenth-starting Daryn Pittman who was fast and up to third at the break.
The teams had three minutes to change tires, adjust air pressure and make any necessary adjustments to their driver’s speed chariots before they had to roll back on the track.
Gravel took a drink of water before pulling his helmet back on to go back to battle.
On the restart, Gravel drove through the clean air around the low line but really could maneuver through the middle or around the top when necessary.
Pittman was certainly not surrendering without giving Gravel a fight.
As Gravel closed in on the rear of the field, Pittman drove within eight car lengths at one point before Gravel sped away, this time for good.
When flagman Doug Clark showed the white flag indicating one lap to go, Gravel covered the historic half mile succinctly and drove under the double checkered flags for the win by 4.632 seconds over Logan Schuchart who came home in the runner-up position after a last lap pass of Pittman, who finished third.
A jubilant Gravel celebrated in Victory Lane with his team, sponsors, family and friends as he became the 26th driver to win the Nationals.
Gravel’s name will be forever etched in the record books as the winner of sprint car racing’s biggest race; after climbing from the car, he was greeted with hugs from his team and then reflected on the race.
“I just let the race come to me,” said Gravel, who added, “Just, luckily, I was able to maintain third there early. I think that was huge and of see what lines worked where and what was the best place to be.”
As any good racer does, he remembered the lessons from the past when he explained, “I’ve put myself in position a lot of times after prelim night and never had anything to show for it. You know my best finish was tenth before this. I feel like I’ve always been pretty good here, but no results on Saturday.”
After taking a deep breath to collect his thoughts and drink in the moment Gravel concluded, “Obviously, the 41 gets around here good and it shows. It’s just been a dream week. I’m numb right now. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
As for Johnson, the team owner was still in a daze.
“I’m still trying to fathom it; you dream of this stuff. It’s just phenomenal, unreal really.”
As she fought back tears, Johnson summarized, “Words can’t say what goes into all of the behind the scenes of something like this. I’m just thankful Jason (her late husband who won the race in 2016) was a great teacher and leader to me.”
Johnson concluded by stating, “I have to thank everybody that’s out there and all the fans!”
SITTING IN THE
Coming off a victory on August 4 in the Capitani Classic, Gravel and the team had their qualifying night at Knoxville on August 8.
There were 55 drivers signed into the pit area on a moderately hot and humid day in the nation’s heartland.
Earlier in the afternoon, Gravel made his way back to the camping area to pick up Jaxx Johnson to pull the pill for their spot in the time trial order.
After mixing them up, Jaxx pulled the #71 pill (out of 75), which meant Gravel would go out late for his two laps.
Jaxx, only six years of age but with the maturity of a wise adult, assured everyone when he said, “It will be alright. Everything is gonna be good.”
As the racing start time got closer, Gravel and the team welcomed NASCAR legends Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham to the pit area, where they spent some time discussing the format, the race car and the sprint car racing.
Then it was time to go to work.
Gravel rolled out onto the track, built up speed and took the green flag. The track had appeared to slow down, but Gravel charged up the speed charts the first time around with a lap of 15.872 seconds. His second lap was slightly slower, but his first one was ninth quick overall on the night.
Starting on the inside of row four from the seventh starting spot in the fourth heat race, Daryn Pittman was to Gravel’s outside.
When the green flag dropped, Gravel made a daring, high speed move and quickly picked off two cars as he motored down the frontstretch and continued to drive forward through the first set of turns and over the course of the first half mile to move into the third position by the end of lap one.
On lap three, Gravel made the pass into the runner-up position and was stalking race leader Sye Lynch. He would momentarily get by Lynch to lead lap four, but Lynch carried his speed into turn one on the outside and wrestled the top spot back.
Lynch would go on to collect the 10-lap heat race win over Gravel who came home second.
With points accumulating each time a driver hit the track, Gravel had the third highest point when the heat races concluded, positioning him in the sixth starting spot for the 25-lap qualifying night feature event.
Polesitter Brock Zearfoss jumped into the early lead with Gravel quickly picking up three positions and running in third.
Soon, Gravel was up on the wheel as he chased down defending Knoxville champion Brad Sweet and took over the runner up position on lap seven.
Gravel was closing on Zearfoss and momentarily passed him at the line to lead lap eight before Zearfoss earned it back on lap nine, when a caution waved.
The early action was interrupted with a number of cautions, one of which was after the completion of lap nine with Zearfoss leading Gravel and Sweet.
On the restart, Zearfoss experienced ignition issues and rolled to a stop. Gravel inherited the lead, but he had Sweet right behind him so there was nothing easy about the balance of the race.
On the restart, Gravel drove away and was building a big lead as Sweet was battling for the second spot.
Another caution regrouped the field and Gravel again got a good start to take the lead.
As Gravel approached the back of the field the preferred bottom lane was packed with traffic.
Sweet was closing, but Gravel, in a preview of what was to come the next evening, maneuvered through and bought some space as he took the win by 1.733 seconds over Sweet.
After celebrating in victory lane with Bobbi and Jaxx Johnson along Jaxx Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Webber, Gravel reflected on his success. “This is the car we ran in the Capitani, and it ran just as good.”
He continued in Victory Lane, “I feel really good about where we are at. I was nervous drawing a 71 out of 75 (for qualifying), but we’ve been able to qualify well all year, and were able to capitalize on that.
“It’s an awesome night,” said Gravel, who added, “It can’t get any better than this (but it did). I felt like my last five laps were terrible. I don’t know where Brad got close to me or what. I could hit three and four like I wanted to, but struggled at the end. We’re happy to win and happy to have had a good points night.”
Gravel earned 481 points out of a maximum of 500, which put him on the outside of the front row for the Nationals.
The rest is now what may fairly be recalled by many as career-enhancing stuff of legend for Watertown’s own as the years unfold.
Gravel’s week of racing excellence began on August 4.
Each year when the schedule comes out the drivers and teams circle the August dates at Knoxville Raceway on their calendars for a reason.
Winning at any track is special, but picking up a win at Knoxville holds some additional meaning.
Plus, it is never easy as the best from everywhere in the country show up to compete. After the feature concluded at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55, Gravel and the JJR team headed north for the 8th Annual Bell Helmets Capitani Classic.
There were 77 cars entered and lining the inside pit area, meaning the field would be split into two groups for time trials.
Gravel’s was the 16th car out on the track for his two laps at speed; he stopped the clock on his first lap at 16.149 seconds but kept pushing and turned a better lap the second time around at 15.776 seconds with that lap the fifth quick overall in the first group.
For the six heat races, the top four in each were inverted in the starting lineup, which put Gravel on the inside of row two in the second eight-lap heat race, sharing with Kerry Madsen.
Gravel moved up to and maintained second position and was holding off Jeffries. Shane Golobic drove a great race to take the win over Gravel and Jeffries with those three finishers advancing to the feature event.
Before the feature, however, Gravel had some work to do.
Having earned enough points in time trials and his heat race to earn a shot in the Pole Shootout, Gravel hopped into the 41 to take on the defending Nationals champion Brad Sweet, and drive off his inside starting position to take the lead entering turn one.
Gravel continued his drive forward for two laps to take the win and advance on to the next round where he would find Brian Brown.
The two drivers put on a one-mile show during their two lap duel, but Brown prevailed in a close finish to advance to the final round against top point man Brock Zearfoss.
With his finish in the Pole Shootout behind him, Gravel started on the inside of row two from the third starting position, fron where he wasted no time at the start of the race and drove by Zearfoss into the second position behind Brown.
Hitting his marks and finding speed, on the seventh circuit Gravel drove into the lead.
Brown was right there and after the first caution slowed the field, Brown made it work and got back by Gravel to retake the lead with 10 laps in the books.
Gravel kept digging and took the lead back on lap 12 and led the next three circuits before Brown was back by him again.
The racing at the front of the field was exciting as Giovanni Scelzi was now clearly in the mix just after the halfway point of the race. In fact, he got by Gravel for second and was pushing Brown before Gravel came back to life and drove back into the lead on lap 20.
In the end, Gravel would not be denied as he took the double checkered flags and the victory.
Little did Gravel and his crew know at the time, but a fantastic week’s journey into the history book was just beginning.
UP AHEAD: For Gravel and the sky-high JJR team are World of Outlaws events at Grand Forks, North Dakota on Friday, August 16, West Fargo, ND on Saturday, August 17 and Rapid City, South Dakota on Friday, August 23.