We looked back at an Eldora Kings Royal last week, so I wanted to take time to reminisce about an old Knoxville Nationals this week.
I figured the first one to take a look at was the best one I’ve seen in my lifetime – Jason Johnson’s 2016 Knoxville Nationals victory over Donny Schatz. It might be one of the best races, I’ve ever seen period, let alone at Knoxville.
Since that legendary night, Johnson passed away doing what he loved.
But he gave us a whole lot of good memories beforehand – this night at Knoxville being one of them.
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‘Shit, I wanted to win’ – the 2016 Knoxville Nationals
Jason Johnson took to the high side of the track. Donny Schatz claimed the low end.
Johnson, a sprint car veteran who was in his second full season with the World of Outlaws, played a hero trying to dethrone the 9-time Knoxville Nationals winning villain.
The pair would battle it out, each starting in the top five, for the 56th annual Knoxville Nationals crown.
Schatz would show right away why he had one nine of the past 10 Nationals crowns.
On the opening lap of the 50-lap feature, the No. 15 car jumped from fifth place to third, with Schatz gluing the nose of the car to the inside and slide-jobbing his way through the pack.
Daryn Pittman started on the pole for the race, but any time Schatz is moving through the pack, there is an illusion present that that lead could disappear at any moment.
Johnson stuck his car to the outside line all night. That’s where it would work best, and although he might have waivered at times, he was committed to it.
Early on, the No. 41 held off Schatz and worked his way to Pittman’s left rear tire, passing the No. 9 Kasey Kahne Racing car to lead lap 11.
As Johnson battled to stay in front of Pittman, it opened the door for Schatz to put his name in the ring.
Schatz put his Tony Stewart Racing car up front and took the lead from Johnson on lap 15.
About the length of a lap later, he was nearly a straight-away ahead. That’s just how fast Schatz was when he had the space to be, at Knoxville.
Craig Dollansky blew an engine on the ensuing lap, bringing out a caution with eight laps to run before the half-way yellow flag.
On this run, however, Johnson stuck with Schatz and didn’t allow the No. 15 to get nearly as far out front as he had before.
It was a preview of what was to come.
Schatz came around turns 1 and 2 on lap 27, and it didn’t seem like he got close to the wall.
Johnson, though, made it look like Schatz was dead in his tracks with the run he had going through the straightaway.
Going into turn 3, Johnson was forced to the inside, but still crossed up Schatz, sliding to the lead and using the cushion for the traction needed to push his car to the clear.
Johnson established the lead over Schatz this time – proving he had something to try and dethrone the champ – but then he got up onto the cushion on lap 31.
Johnson nearly put his car sideways trying to avoid the outside wall, and kept it going straight. However, Schatz didn’t get by him.
The man they called the Ragin’ Cajun kept it going around the half-mile racetrack, while Schatz was sitting in second for the taking.
Kerry Madsen – a man that is no stranger to Knoxville – was looking to make a move by to get by Schatz.
Madsen would go as far as to get his nose in front of Schatz,’ but the two would battle and the No. 15 remained in second, chasing the red, black, and yellow No. 41 car.
With six laps to go, the two touched tires going into turns 1 and 2.
Johnson symbolically did what he had always done, through his career, in situations similar – he kept his foot on the pedal.
Johnson wheeled his car side-by-side with the No. 15 as they fought for supremacy with five laps to go.
On lap 46, Schatz made a mistake. Johnson took his lead.
He ran faster than Schatz in the closing laps, but there was a reason Donny had as many Nationals wins as he did.
Schatz made run on the final lap, diving all the way down in turns 3 and 4.
It was a drag race coming to the start-finish line, one that Johnson finished the upset that he started.
The No. 41 had won the 2016 Knoxville Nationals.
When people talk about great races – and even to go mainstream and bring up upsets, overall – this night is right up there with the great ones on the list.
Johnson wrapped it up nicely in victory lane, where he said for the first time what would be echoed as his most famous words.
“I wasn’t giving up,” Johnson said. “This is the biggest race of the year and biggest race of my career. It was a golden opportunity and I had to make the most of it. I know (Schatz) wasn’t happy for me crowding him, but shit I wanted to win!”