Larson finishes 10th in return at Knoxville

Trent Gower Photo
Trent Gower Photo

A 48-car field of the best Sprint Car drivers in the world that included the return of Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, following strict COVID-19 regulations, set by the World of Outlaws, competed for $10,000-to-win in front of an empty grandstand and thousands of fans watching live on DIRTVision desperate for Sprint Car racing. Desperate to forget for a few hours about life.

The silence around the half-mile track was an adjustment, but when drivers fired their cars for the first time in more than two months, normalcy set in. And when their helmets went on, the passion, aggression and competitiveness returned, knowing no difference from before.

It showed during the 30-lap Feature. Last year’s Knoxville Nationals winner David Gravel, of Watertown, CT and two-time Knoxville track champion Ian Madsen, of Saint Marys, NSW, Australia, put on such an electrifying show that you couldn’t help but feel like everyone watching at home was at the track with you.

Every slide job the two traded for the lead added another level of tension and drama. Then, with the white flag in the air, Gravel stole the lead from Madsen to win yet another race at Knoxville with the eyes of the world upon him.

“We don’t really feel how many people are watching, maybe tens of thousands of people are watching tonight (on DIRTVision) and hopefully that was a good race for everyone to get their blood pumping again," Gravel said. “Me and Ian just battled and battled and battled … It’s just good to get back in a race car and be competitive."

Larson finished 10th after starting 18th in the main event. It was the first race for the former No. 42 driver in the NASCAR Cup Series since being fired by Chip Ganassi Racing last month for using a racial slur during an iRacing event.

The World of Outlaws cleared Larson to race after he completed sensitivity training. Larson remains on indefinite suspension from NASCAR.

Gravel earned his first small victory of the night by setting the fastest time in Flight 2 of Qualifying, however Aaron Reutzel set overall Quick Time. Gravel dominated his Drydene Heat Race and then finished fourth in the DIRTVision Fast Pass Dash – won by Madsen.

When the Feature went green, Daryn Pittman darted ahead of Madsen for the lead and led the opening eight laps before Madsen tracked him down and powered around the outside of him. Pittman spent the next eight laps trying to claw his way back by Madsen, but the Australian’s car was in love with the black-clay and pulled away.

Behind them, Gravel looked to be struggling after an early run at the leaders. He fell from third to fifth on a restart and came close to crashing with Lynton Jeffrey as they banged side bars going into Turn 2. It took him a few laps to recalibrate and work at building his momentum again. He got to fourth by Lap 11. Third by Lap 13. And the passed Pittman for second on Lap 16.

With the same engine under his hood that guided him and Jason Johnson Racing to a Knoxville Nationals win and sweep of the World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, it only took Gravel another lap to eliminate Madsen’s half a track lead. The two drivers then put on a battle that will be remembered for years.

Gravel had a run underneath Madsen that was sure to give him the lead, but a slower car running the bottom hindered his exit of Turn 4, allowing Madsen to pull back ahead. The two then traded slide jobs each lap, but Madsen continued to carry the better momentum off the corner to hold the lead.

With about three laps to go, Gravel threw a desperate slider underneath Madsen going into Turn 1. However, if he continued the trajectory of his slider he could have plowed into the side of Madsen. Gravel thought better and cranked his car sideways to avoid that outcome. He then watched Madsen fire down the backstretch to about a half of a track away.

Gravel thought the race was lost. A valiant attempt gone sour. But in this unusual event, the unexpected was ever present.

Madsen’s car got sideways off Turn 4 coming to two laps to go. That allowed Gravel one final shot at running Madsen down. He closed through Turns 1 and 2, but not enough to set up another desperate slider the next corner. Looking to cruise to his first World of Outlaws win at Knoxville, Madsen road the high side through Turns 3 and 4, coming to one lap to go.

However, Madsen, again, had an issue trying to exit Turn 4, getting sideways and killing his speed. Gravel didn’t hesitate to take advantage. He sped by Madsen down the front stretch to lead his first lap of the race and only had one more to go.

You could hear the thunder of cheers building in your head, even though they weren’t there in reality. This momentous moment in time was about to come to a close in thrilling fashion. No matter who won, it was going to be an exciting memory in Sprint Car history. After one final lap with no mistakes, Gravel etched his name in history once again and claimed a win that may be remembered more than his Knoxville Nationals win or any other big win after.

“I don’t know how," said an elated Gravel about winning after the race. “Me and Ian made a lot of mistakes. If it was a 25-lap race, I would have lost that one. I was really good in (Turns) 1 and 2 on the bottom, but man, I could not come off. It was so treacherous, and he was kind of running up the track and turning down and getting more momentum. If I hit my marks, I was faster, but man, it was hard to do."

Also, in an occurrence like no other, fans and companies watching on DIRTVision donated money for various contingencies throughout the night – totaling nearly $15,000 – and part of it brought Gravel’s win total from $10,000 to more than $15,000.

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