KERCHNER: Knoxville Nuggets
KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Sixteen drivers have already earned spots in Saturday night’s 53rd annual FVP Knoxville Nationals feature.
It’s a mixed bag of veteran drivers and up and comers — many familiar names and a few that are not quite household names, but are well-known by die-hard sprint car racers. As well, many of the sport’s biggest stars have yet to earn their way into the field.
On the pole is longtime bridesmaid Joey Saldana, who has been close many times at the Nationals, bet never sealed the deal. It will Saldana’s 16th A-main start. Alongside is last year’s runner-up, Brian Brown, who may have taken over as the favorite to win this year’s race.
Five-time Knoxville 360 Nationals champion Shane Stewart has his best starting position for the Nationals in third. It will be Stewart’s 13th A-main appearance.
Brad Sweet, who won the Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway earlier this season starts fifth with Paul McMahan, who leads the World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series in fast qualifier awards this season, is sixth.
Knoxville Raceway regular Justin Henderson has his best starting position in fourth and talented Connecticut racer David Gravel, who won Wednesday’s preliminary, makes his second Nationals start from seventh spot.
Australian veteran Kerry Madsen goes eighth.
One of the most interesting drivers locked into the field is five-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner Kevin Swindell, who has spent most of his time racing stock cars since winning the Chili Bowl in January.
He returned to a winged sprint car at Knoxville Raceway for the 360 Nationals and has finished on the podium in all five races he has run. He’ll start ninth in the Indy No. 71. He shares the fifth row with rising star Cody Darrah, who drives for Kasey Kahne.
World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series point leader Daryn Pittman starts 11th. Twelve-time Nationals champion and his father Sammy’s biggest rival through the years, Steve Kinser. Kinser looked spectacular in qualifying and his heat Thursday, but faded in the feature. Still he returns for his 35th Nationals start after failing to qualify last year.
Four-time Knoxville Nationals winner Danny Lasoski will start his own No. 33 13th in his 24th Nationals start, while Stevie Smith goes alongside in his 20th Nationals feature.
Roger Crockett, who has won 14 360 sprint car features this season, starts 15th. It will be his first A-main start in the Knoxville Nationals. Finally, Greg Hodnett starts his 14th Nationals from the 16th spot.
The highest profile driver on the outside looking in at this point is six-time Nationals champion Donny Schatz, who has two chances to earn a spot — one tonight in the SPEED SPORT World Challenge and a second in Saturday’s B main.
Sammy Swindell also faces a run through the alphabet to qualify for the feature as do veterans Jac Haudenschild, Randy Hannagan, Jeff Swindell, Craig Dollansky, Terry McCarl, 2005 winner Kraig Kinser, 2010 winner Tim Shaffer and perennial All Star champion Dale Blaney.
Friday’s program will give four of these drivers the opportunity to race their way into starting positions 17-20 for Saturday’s feature.
It should be an interesting night.