KNOXVILLE — The 61st Knoxville Nationals got underway on Wednesday night with the first of two qualifying nights at Knoxville Raceway.
Logan Schuchart of Hanover, Pennsylvania, was the big winner on Wednesday, holding off a late charge from 10-time Knoxville Nationals champion Donny Schatz to win the A-Main. David Gravel finished third.
After one night, Schatz and Gravel were tied at the top of the points standings with 469 points apiece. Brent Marks was third with 462 points, followed by Parker Price-Miller (457) and Justin Sanders (456). Schuchart was eighth with 444 points.
Points will be accumulated to determine starting spots for Saturday night, leading up to the $175, 000 to win A-Main feature.
Defending champion Kyle Larson was set to hit the track on Thursday night, so there are still plenty of opportunities for drivers to move up or down in the standings. A total of 200 drivers are entered in this year's field.
Here are 10 things to watch for leading up to Saturday's grand finale.
Can anyone catch Kyle?
Kyle Larson has taken the racing world by storm the last four years, winning everything from NASCAR to Xfinity to Camping World Truck Series to late models to sprint cars.
Everywhere he goes, Larson is a threat to win. He has won four World of Outlaws races this season and comes into this week as the defending champion.
"It's cool. I'm glad to be back in Knoxville. This is a special place," said Larson, who is coming off a win in the 27th Annual Sage Fruit Front Row Challenge on Monday at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa. "Being the returning champion makes it even more special. I'm hoping for another good week."
Larson didn't have the best qualifying day last year, but still managed to come away with the win on Saturday night, holding off a late charge from Schatz for the win. Larson is the prohibitive favorite to come away with the win, but there are 199 other drivers who will have a say in that and who are not intimidated by the 30-year old known as "Young Money."
Chasing down The King
Schatz already is off to a fast start at "The Granddaddy of 'Em All." But while a tough track on opening night limited Schatz's points total, only one person knows more about winning Knoxville Nationals than Schatz.
Schatz has won 10 Knoxville Nationals, the last coming in 2017. He won four straight from 2006-09 and five consecutive from 2011-15.
Schatz is just two away from Steve Kinser's record 12 Knoxville Nationals and has been the dominant sprint car driver of the past 16 years.
Schatz has two World of Outlaws wins this season and is fifth in the season championship points race with 6,196 points.
Kasey at the wheel
One driver who cannot be overlooked this week is Kasey Kahne. The former NASCAR Cup Series star, who has 18 career wins on that series, seems poised for a breakthrough in sprint cars, and there is no better place to do it than Knoxville Raceway.
Kahne, a three-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600, has more than 70 open wheel victories to his credit, including the Sprint All-Star Race XXIV.
Kahne had a career-best eighth-place finish at last year's Knoxville Nationals and is 12th in the World of Outlaws season points with 4,768 points. He has a pair of top-five finishes and five top 10s this season.
Young guns are blazing
There are plenty of talented young drivers looking to step up and knock off the big boys.
Leading the way are Giovanni Scelzi, Carson Macedo and Sheldon Haudenschild. Each is seeking his first Knoxville Nationals win and each is on a hot streak coming into the week.
Scelzi, fresh off a win in his last trip to Knoxville Raceway last month, led 10 laps in last year's A-Main before settling for fourth. He already has two World of Outlaws victories this season.
Macedo and Haudenschild both have eight wins with the Outlaws this season and are third and fourth in the season points standings. Both finished in the top 10 at last year's Nationals.
Reutzel on a roll
Aaron Reutzel, a veteran driver from Clute, Texas, has been red-hot this season. He has 31 top-10 finishes and 10 victories this season.
Reutzel is fresh off winning the 360 Knoxville Nationals last week and comes in with plenty of confidence and knowledge of what it takes to win at Knoxville Raceway.
Reutzel's career-best in the 410 Knoxville Nationals was a fourth-place showing in 2018.
A Sweet ride
Brad Sweet has been the most consistent driver on the World of Outlaws circuit the last four years. He is the three-time defending World of Outlaws champion and has a 68-point lead over Gravel this season.
Sweet has three wins, 27 top-fives and 40 top-10 finishes with the Outlaws this season.
Sweet, who won the Ironman 55 two weeks ago, won his only Knoxville Nationals title back in 2018.
Sweet has been consistent the last four seasons, so look for the veteran from Grass Valley, California, to be right in the mix this week.
Shaking things up
Schatz won four straight Knoxville Nationals from 2011-15, Since then, there has been a different winner all five years.
Jason Johnson interrupted Schatz's run in 2016 before Schatz climbed back to the top in 2017. Sweet won in 2018 and Gravel picked up his first Nationals title in 2019.
After a year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Larson was victorious last season.
Prior to 2015, the Knoxville Nationals was won by only seven different drivers from 1997-2010.
Brian Brown knows his way around Knoxville Raceway as well as anyone. His 59 career wins in 410s at the track is tied for third all -time. He has won 77 features total at Knoxville Raceway.
Brown was the runner-up at Nationals from 2012-14 and won a preliminary night last year.
Danny Lasoski, who has 112 feature wins at Knoxville Raceway and was a four-time Nationals champion, is the crew chief for Brown.
Brown and Lasoski would dearly love to drive to Victory Lane come Saturday night.
On your Marks
Brent Marks has been flying under the radar this season. Still seeking his first Knoxville Nationals win, the Myerstown, Pennsylvania, driver has five wins, eight top-fives and 10 top-10s this year and is 20th in the season points race, 10 points behind Larson.
Marks completed the sweep at Knoxville on the opening night in June and also won the Historical Big One and Kings Royal.
While Larson, Schatz, Sweet and Gravel are getting much of the attention, Marks has quietly put together a terrific season. He would like nothing more than to add a Knoxville Nationals victory to his growing resume.
Iowans in the field
No native Iowan has ever won the Knoxville Nationals, but not for lack of trying.
Earl Wagner from Pleasantville finished third in 1961, third again in 1968 and second in 1971.
Randy Smith from Mount Ayr finished second in 1979.
Mike Brooks from Knoxville was close in 1980 and started on the pole. He had a shot to win it, but because of fog on Saturday the race was moved to Sunday afternoon and tires didn't last long during the daytime shows. He was the heavy favorite to win with a perfect 500 score on his qualifying night and led the first 13 laps of the championship A-Main on Sunday until his tires gave. He ended up 15th.
Terry McCarl of Altoona had a close one in 2004 when he led the first 15 laps but ended up fifth. His best finish is third in 2007.
Recent Knoxville High School graduate Riley Goodno was born in Ames, he has lived most of his 19 years in Knoxville. He is coming off a big showing at Huset's Speedway
There are 12 Iowans in the field this week: McCarl, Goodno, Sawyer Phillips of Pleasantville, Dustin Selvage of Indianola, AJ Mooeller of Rockwell City, Josh Schneiderman of West Burlington, McKenna Haase of Des Moines, Tasker Phillips of Pleasantville, Bobby Mincer of Burlington, Carson McCarl of Altoona, Chris Martin of Ankeny and Austin McCarl of Altoona.
Matt Levins is a sports reporter for the USA Today Network in Burlington, Iowa, who has covered local sports for 31 years at The Hawk Eye. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Kyle Larson ready to defend his Knoxville Nationals title this week