There are roughly 90 drivers entered in this year’s Knoxville Nationals, and the format is similar for 88 of them:
— Score enough points during your prelim night (through qualifying, heat races and the feature races) and you’re locked into the big show on Saturday night.
— If you don’t score enough points, there’s essentially a chance to try again on Friday night before Saturday’s lineups are set.
But two drivers — Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne — don’t have that luxury due to their NASCAR commitments this weekend in Michigan. That meant their chances of making the main event for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl seemed to be resting solely on how they performed in Wednesday night’s prelims.
It went well for Larson, who scored the most points of anyone — even 10-time Knoxville Nationals champ Donny Schatz — but it didn’t go well for Kahne, who found himself in poor position to return Saturday.
“Your prelim night is important for everybody, but it’s really important for me because I can’t come back on Friday,” Larson said. “I knew I had to be locked in to be able to come back Saturday and race. So it would have been very disappointing if I didn’t have a good night tonight and came back to Knoxville and was just watching.”
Points are scored based on single-car qualifying, then how cars do in their heat races (which have an eight-car invert) followed by how they fare in the features.
The night started well for both: Larson qualified 10th — despite drawing the 45th and final pill — and Kahne was ninth.
But then their results went in opposite directions. While Larson went from the last row to finish second place in his heat — thus advancing to the A-Main — Kahne finished eighth in his heat. Then, relegated to the B-Main, Kahne finished seventh (only the top four advanced) while Larson drove from sixth to third in the A.
That left Kahne sitting 22nd in the points with half the field still to run on Thursday. If he can’t figure out a way to get from Michigan to Iowa on Friday night, it’s probably pointless for Kahne to even return on Saturday.
Why? Because Kahne would likely have to start in an E-Main and race his way up the ladder (which is extremely difficult and rare).
“Really bad position,” Kahne said. “I don’t know if I could come back. I don’t know how it would all work.”
Could Kahne possibly return Friday and salvage an attempt? Larson said the NASCAR buddies walked into the Knoxville drivers meeting together on Wednesday and were examining the schedules closely in case they found themselves in that very position.
“We were looking at qualifying, when that starts, when it would finish, how long it takes to get to the airport, the time change, what airport to fly into,” Larson said. “I think he can make it work. It’s just a matter of whether he pulls the trigger and does it.”
Cup cars qualify at Michigan at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday (4:05 p.m. CT). Kahne would have to qualify, get to the airport, fly to Iowa, get to the track and get in his car by the time hot laps start around 8:15 p.m. ET (7:15 p.m. local).
“I just feel like it would be really hard to make qualifying,” Kahne said. “I’m going to look at it, but I might be done.”