Brad Sweet found himself feeling tense and nervous all day heading into the Knoxville Nationals, the race he’s worked his entire life to win.
Sweet had the fastest car in Iowa all week and was starting from the pole position for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl. But that did nothing to alleviate the nerves.
Thoughts swirled through his head about his game plan — stick to the bottom — and the notes he’d been taking since the very first race of the season at Volusia. What can I learn in this race that can apply to Knoxville?
But then, before the racing started, everyone in the pits stopped what they were doing. A video paying tribute to the late Jason Johnson, who was killed in a June sprint car race, appeared on the track’s big screen.
The tribute footage included moments from Johnson’s own Knoxville Nationals win, and suddenly everything changed for Sweet.
“It really brought a calm over me,” Sweet said later. “I didn’t feel any pressure anymore. It put things in perspective. He was just a tough guy who would go run the shit out of it. So once that happened, I kind of just got in the race car and just drove.”
Ultimately, that’s what Sweet had to do to win his first career Nationals and etch his name among the greats who have won the legendary race.
The Kasey Kahne Racing driver’s lead over 10-time Nationals winner Donny Schatz was erased by a red flag with two laps to go, and Sweet sat in his car knowing he’d have to hold off the world’s two best sprint car racers — Schatz and Kyle Larson (Sweet’s soon-to-be brother-in-law) to win.
Two more laps. Just two more laps. Sweet decided to run the bottom, as he’d done all weekend, leaving Schatz a chance to win from the top.
“I ran the bottom 75 straight laps this whole week, so what was two more?” Sweet told himself.
One mile later, Sweet was screaming with joy while standing on top of his wing in victory lane. He’d done it. The Californian was the 2018 Knoxville Nationals champion.
“Everything about what just happened to me is what I’ve strived for my whole life and my whole career,” he said. “This means the world to me.”
The side-by-side finish at the line over Schatz was recorded at a margin of 0.133 second, which was the second-closest in Nationals history. Schatz said he was hoping for one more lap, but ran out of time.
“I can guarantee one thing: I didn’t lift on the pedal,” Schatz said. “I really thought I had a good shot at Brad. He just didn’t make any mistakes.”
Larson, meanwhile, will have to wait another year to try and win his first Nationals. But Sweet, the brother of Larson’s fiancee Katelyn, had at least one member of the Larson family who was quite pleased with the outcome.
An hour before the final night began, Larson held 3-year-old son Owen in his arms and asked an innocent question: Which driver did Owen want to win the Nationals: Owen’s dad or Owen’s uncle?
“I want Uncle Brad to win!” Owen said.
Owen, as it turned out, got his wish.
— World of Outlaws (@WorldofOutlaws) August 12, 2018