Jeff Gordon made it look easy in winning Wednesday's charity go-kart race in Knoxville, Iowa. (Photo: Cyndee Bonkowski)

Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa — How many NASCAR fans have said to themselves or friends, “Man, if I only had the chance, I’d love to bang fenders with my favorite driver?”

Or, “Man, I’d love to take (fill in driver’s name) out in a race.”

Well, on Wednesday at Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville, Iowa, nearly 60 lucky fans had the chance to do one of the rarest things in pro sports: to race with their heroes, four of the biggest names in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took on the lucky fans in the second annual Kick-It/Weld Racing Go-Kart Spectacular to benefit pediatric cancer.

“This is really going to change the lives for children out there with pediatric cancer, so thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gordon told the crowd of about 2,500 fans that turned out to watch. “When I looked at the parking lot today and saw the line of cars down the road, I knew it was going to be a good day.

“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where you’re going to go to a go-kart track and see Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and myself together – or have as much fun.”

Each of the nearly 60 fans that raced paid at least $300 for the chance to do some rubbin’ and racin’ on the slippery oval, a track that was made even more slick with periodic rain sprinkles throughout the afternoon.

“We’re all passionate about this week, this event and we’re all passionate about Jeff’s efforts,” Stewart said. “We do it because of Jeff and because of the kids that he supports. That’s what racers do. It’s not about being a stock car driver. That’s the breed of drivers we are and the background we come from.”

There even was a special guest in the house, Gordon’s former crew chief and NASCAR team owner and broadcaster, Ray Evernham.

Evernham and the four drivers were all in town for the Daytona 500 of the sprint car world, the Knoxville Nationals, which began later Wednesday evening.

Before one of the heats, Evernham looked like he was trying to improve Gordon’s go-kart, prompting Tony Stewart to quip with a laugh, “No fair, no working on the car. You’re cheating just like you used to.”

“It’s great to see Jeff, Tony, Kasey and Kyle supporting what they’ve got going on out here,” Evernham said. “To me, (sprint car) is really grassroots racing. It’s where a lot of us grew up and it’s really neat to see a lot of people doing it and all the support that they have.”

When I asked Evernham why he wasn’t in the go-kart race, he replied with a laugh, “My problem is I’ve always been a much better mechanic than driver.”

The event raised nearly $25,000 for charity, including Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.

“Oh my gosh, it was so much fun,” Gordon said. “This place is so much fun to go out there in (simulated) sprint cars and slide ’em around. A little bit of sprinkle making for a lot of fun conditions. And there’s some guys out there with some real skills. We all have big smiles on our face, having a lot of fun.”

“Those of us with Kick-It, for kids cancer, this is a real treat for us to be able to come here, be a part of this event, raise money for a great cause – pediatric cancer – have a go-kart event like this and to have the fans come out and support the way they did this year is amazing. It’s a huge crowd. When you get this kind of a driver lineup out here in Knoxville, the fans are going to come. I hope they enjoyed it, because we certainly did.”

Added Kahne, “It’s neat to see, all the money goes to a great cause, and we get to race a lot of people that are out here having fun like we are. It’s a cool, cool event.”

There were eight heat races leading up to the main event. The winners of each heat advanced to race all four pro drivers, who understood and took it good-naturedly that some of their fellow drivers were looking for bragging rights that they spun out a NASCAR star.

“It’s fun racing with the fans because this is like the biggest thing they’ve ever done, racing with us,” Larson said. “They take it really serious, you can see it on their faces. It makes it fun for us to see how focused they are. And when we beat them, they grip the steering wheel even harder.

“You can see it happen, too. You see them like focus on your rear bumper and just turn toward you. We understand it, though, and it’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, much like the way Sprint Cup drivers typically dominate when they race in the Nationwide Series, the Cup drivers were the stars in Wednesday’s main event.

Gordon won the race, Kahne was a close second, and Anthony Corini, a 20-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., was the top-finishing fan, taking home a trophy and the experience of a lifetime.

“That was pretty fun,” Corini said. “The rain made it real interesting. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it. It was a great moment. There was a lot of money raised for a good cause.

“I did it last year, but I ran around the back in the main. I made it, but I didn’t do as well as I did this year. I finished behind Jeff and Kasey, but not too bad of company, I guess. I think I was flying under the radar.”

Stewart and Larson finished further back in the 12-driver pack.

“I think (sprint car driver) Brad Doty put it best when he said, ‘Think about what this means to people and being able to do this,'” Stewart said. “But at the same time, think about how much it means to us to be able to do it. It’s fun for us. Nobody’s out there trying to wreck you and put you in the wall. Everybody’s racing and having fun. It makes stuff like this a lot of fun.

“Look at everybody that’s out here, and in the rain, no less. That’s the kind of fans you see at sprint car races. Everybody’s having fun and enjoying it.”

As for a certain MotorSportsTalk writer who also competed in the event, well … let’s just say he finished and leave it at that.

And we won’t get into that he got spun twice by a certain NASCAR star whose last name rhymes with “pain,” or about the flat tire – his third in five days – said writer had on the way to Iowa.

But that’s another story for another time.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.