By Jeremiah Davis
KNOXVILLE – Brad Sweet didn’t breathe for the final two laps of the biggest race of his life.
The Knoxville Nationals cannot be topped in Sprint Car racing, and the Kasey Kahne Racing driver led the field to a green-white-checkered finish ahead of Donny Schatz – only the winner of 10 of the last 12 Nationals and arguably the best to ever sit behind the wheel of a Sprint Car.
With Schatz rolling the high lane, the pair were side by side for the full GWC finish. Sweet, who had led all but two laps he was on track this week, ran two perfect laps and held on for the second-closest margin of victory in Nationals history.
In tears in Victory Lane, Sweet said he channeled the late Jason Johnson, who was the last driver to beat Schatz head-to-head in this race.
“God damn I can’t breathe. I think I held my breath the last two laps,” Sweet said after taking a second in Victory Lane. “I told myself to do what Jason would do – just go out there and run the shit out of it.
“I dreamed when he won it about the feeling he had, and here we are. It’s unbelievable. I just want to cry and hug and kiss and drink lots of beer.”
Sweet became just the third driver to beat Schatz in the last 13 Nationals, a streak in which Schatz won 10 and finished no worse than second – the 2010 loss thanks only to a blown motor in the final two laps.
The Knoxville Nationals fans have turned on Schatz, naturally, over the last several years being eager for new winners, and the sold-out crowd was rewarded with a thrilling finish. Sweet’s win, holding off not just Schatz but NASCAR star Kyle Larson as well, came after a late red flag following a rollover by Kerry Madsen.
The difference between those who achieve greatness and those who don’t is the ability to stay focused when everyone else wouldn’t. As the drivers sat in their cars during that red, Sweet said his mind’s eye again was trained on Johnson, the 2016 Nationals winner and beloved racer who died earlier this summer in a wreck at Beaver Dam Raceway in Wisconsin.
A tribute video was played honoring Johnson before the races began on championship Saturday, and Sweet said he thought of that video, and of Johnson, and it brought him the calm he needed.
“I was tense all day and nervous because I knew we had the car to beat,” Sweet said. “I saw that video of Jason Johnson and it really brought a calm over me. I didn’t feel any pressure anymore. It just put things in perspective. He was just a tough guy who would go out there and run the shit out of it.
“I just drove. I just told myself not to overthink it.”
BRAD SWEET WINS IT. Side by side at the line to win the #KnoxvilleNationals!
What a finish. Amazing drive for the fastest car all week. pic.twitter.com/gtHGdk6Oyl
— Jeremiah Davis (@jeremiahdavis10) August 12, 2018
While Sweet calmed himself in the car, his car-owner paced in the pit area. Kasey Kahne was one among a large NASCAR contingent who made the trip from Michigan to Knoxville for the finale, and Sweet’s was the only smile that topped Kahne’s after the race.
A Cup driver and accomplished dirt racer himself, Kahne has fielded World of Outlaws Sprint Car teams for several years and has had chances to win the Nationals before – Daryn Pittman started on the front row two years ago – but had never been able to break through.
His pride was evident, and he admitted he might not be able to sleep before he races Sunday in Michigan.
“This is something else – something really special,” Kahne said as he watched his driver surrounded by well-wishers and beer-gifters following the post-race press conference. “For him to do it his way and stick to his guns those last two laps, race the track the way he wanted to race it and beat the best there is at it was an unbelievable result. I’m just really proud.
“Donny basically had no pressure on him. It was all on Brad’s shoulders. He had to sit under that red flag and think about it. There was a lot on him and he didn’t miss.”
Often times you’ll hear an athlete, following a championship victory, talk about focusing on the next step or continuing that success forward.
Well, not really, anyway. Of course he’ll want to win more races and continue his success. But for right now, he’s sure not worried about what happens after he leaves Knoxville Raceway.
He just won the Knoxville Nationals. There’s a party to be had. He earned it.
“I’m just going to party and not worry about anything else for a long time,” Sweet said through a wide smile. “I think we run Fargo next week, Donny wins those every year anyway so I think I’ll still be on vacation or something. I’m kind of checked out now. This is what I worked all year for. I’m gonna enjoy this one.”