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KNOXVILLE — It’s the Knoxville Nationals.
That’s reason enough for whatever move, and however bold it might be, to win. For Eunice, La. driver Jason Johnson, it was more than a few slide jobs and aggressive passes of five-time defending and nine-time Nationals champion Donny Schatz.
The latter, who had won nine of the last 10 Nationals coming into this season, wasn’t thrilled with the former in the immediate moments after the race. And while Johnson’s respect for Schatz made him recognize why Schatz would be upset, he wasn’t about to apologize.
It’s the Knoxville Nationals.
“This is the biggest race of the year and the biggest race of my career and I needed to make the most of it. I know he wasn’t happy for crowding him, but (shoot), I wanted to win,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to compete with these guys, you’re going to have to step up to their level.
“If you see that 15 in second, you better go. Not only did I see the 15 in second, but the 2 (Shane Stewart) was in third. I was just driving as hard as I could.”
The pair put on one of the best displays of Sprint Car racing seen at the Knoxville Nationals, which is widely considered the biggest and best Sprint Car race in the world each year. Johnson became just the 24th different driver to take the Nationals crown, and did so against a man who’s become synonymous with winning at Knoxville.
Johnson started outside front row, but chased Schatz for much of the first half of the race. Then just after the halfway break, at Lap 27, Johnson went to the high side and passed Schatz in clean track.
He ran out front until 10 to go, when the pair started dueling for the win. Johnson jumped the cushion on a pair of instances and nearly hit the wall both times, allowing Schatz to snag the lead once. Each time Schatz moved ahead, though, Johnson had an answer.
True to the final stages, Schatz gave one last effort, diving underneath Johnson in the final turn, but came up 0.168 seconds short at the line.
Schatz said, simply, Johnson “(made) it work.”
“The last 10 laps were really intense,” Schatz said. “I kept trying to do something to get by; I could slide by, but he could turn and get right back by. He did one hell of a job. To run the last 10 laps, or last lap — or any lap when you’re leading this race, it’s the world’s toughest spot in Sprint Car racing.
“He figured out how to make it work and get there first. Naturally I’d like to be the one winning, but he won and he earned it.”
Johnson won ahead of Schatz, good friend Shane Stewart, pole-sitter Daryn Pittman and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson, who transferred in through the B-main and started 21st. Johnson was overcome with emotion, both in Victory Lane, holding his son, and in the media center after the race — cursing out of enjoyment multiple times, including once while being interviewed on MAVTV.
The significance of the race was lost on no one in the field, nor on the podium, and Johnson expressed every positive emotion a person could when asked about it.
“I respect Donny as a driver and I don’t want to wreck anybody — I want to race people clean. But like I told him, ‘(Damn) dude, this is the Knoxville Nationals,” Johnson said. “I gave it my all and I wanted to win just as bad as Donny wanted to win; as bad as Shane wanted to win and probably anyone who started that A-main.
“Things fell into place and we got very fortunate.”
The night was one of powerful emotion for the winner, to be sure, but also for more than that.
Johnson’s first words in Victory Lane were for Bryan Clauson, who died last week from injuries sustained in a Midget race in Belleville, Kan. Clauson was honored all week, with “BC” stickers, hats and T-shirts being applied and worn by competitors and fans alike, as well as the “Missing Man” formation before the start of the race.
And in a surprising and touching move, the winner of the 50/50 raffle worth more than $20,000 donated every penny of those winnings back to Clauson’s family.
Johnson got to be the one on the mic in Victory Lane and share Clauson’s mantra, and vowed to celebrate in his honor, too.
What a party it was. It’s the Knoxville Nationals.
“Parked it (for) BC,” Johnson said in Victory Lane. “We lost BC a week ago. … All in all, this (win) is a testament to friendship and what life’s about and (it’s dedicated) to BC.
“We’re going to have a party tonight.”
KNOXVILLE NATIONALS RESULTS
1. 41 Jason Johnson Eunice, LA
2. 15 Donny Schatz Fargo, ND
3. 2S Shane Stewart Bixby, OK
4. 9 Daryn Pittman Owasso, OK
5. 57 Kyle Larson Elk Grove, CA
6. 71 Jamie Veal Warrnambool, VIC, Aust
7. 10H Chad Kemenah Alvada, OH
8. 27 Greg Hodnett Spring Grove, PA
9. 18 Ian Madsen St. Marys, NSW, Aust
10. 5 David Gravel Watertown, CT
11. 49 Brad Sweet Grass Valley, CA
12. 24 Rico Abreu St. Helena, CA
13. 2 Danny Lasoski Dover, MO
14. 3K Tim Kaeding San Jose, CA
15. 11K Kraig Kinser Bloomington, IN
16. 1S Logan Schuchart Hanover, PA
17. 7X Terry McCarl Altoona, IA
18. 1 Sammy Swindell Germantown, TN
19. 1Z Lucas Wolfe Mechanicsburg, PA
20. 82 Dusty Zomer Sioux Falls, SD
21. 47 Jeff Swindell Bartlett, TN
22. 1AUS Kerry Madsen St. Marys, NSW, Aust
23. 1H Dale Blaney Hartford, OH
24. 2KS Craig Dollansky Elk River, MN
25. 3H James McFadden Ormeau, QLD, Aust
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