Jason Johnson is one of the most prolific drivers in the world of sprint car racing. The “Ragin’ Cajun” has earned 245 A-main wins in his career.
But none of those wins has been as big as his triumph Saturday in the biggest sprint car race in existence: the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa.
In a classic David vs. Goliath battle, Johnson dueled with heavy race favorite Danny Schatz – who came into Saturday’s race having won nine of the 10 prior Knoxville Nationals titles – for 50 laps, from green flag to checkered flag.
When it ended, Johnson was crowned the king of the sprint car world, finally scaling to the top of the heap after a lengthy career that has seen its share of ups and downs.
Johnson came into Saturday’s race a decided underdog. Up to that point, he had won just one race in 62 A-main battles this season (March 23 in Placerville, California).
That was his first win since capturing the second-to-last race of 2014 on the American Sprint Cup Series Tour, where he’s a five-time champion.
Coupled with a completely winless slate in 76 starts in 2015, Johnson had earned just one win in his last 139 starts heading into what would prove to be the biggest race and win of his career on Saturday.
Admittedly, 2015 was rough because it was his first full-time season competing in the biggest sprint car racing sanctioning body, the World of Outlaws. And while he went winless, he did earn the series’ Rookie of the Year honors.
The Knoxville win — Johnson’s fourth overall in WoO competition over the years — should go a long way towards improving his lot both on and off the track the rest of this season.
Not only is he $150,000 richer for winning at Knoxville, he leaves there ranked seventh in the WoO Craftsman Sprint Cars Series driver points.
Admittedly, Johnson is 857 points behind Schatz, who leads the series with 8,165 points and 16 wins.
But with the confidence he earned by beating Schatz at his own game, we very likely may see a reinvigorated Johnson going forward in the remaining 25 races on the WoO schedule.
That schedule continues Tuesday night in McCool Junction, Nebraska.
In a classy move, Johnson dedicated his Knoxville victory to his good friend Bryan Clauson, who died Aug. 7, less than 24 hours after being involved in a horrific Midget car crash at a race in Belleville, Kansas.
“I wasn’t giving up,” Johnson said about Saturday’s win. “I mean, this is the biggest race of the year and the biggest race of my career.
“It was a golden opportunity, and I needed to make the most of it. I know (Schatz) wasn’t happy with me for crowding him, but I wanted to win.”
But Schatz didn’t seem to mind Johnson’s aggressive driving style. After all, this was the Knoxville Nationals, where drivers can’t leave even a crumb of effort on the table.
“We did everything we could,” Schatz said. “Jason [Johnson] did a great job. I didn’t think you could run that hard a pace for 50 laps, but he did, and once he got out there, I tried everything to catch him and just couldn’t do it.”
But perhaps the biggest compliment Johnson earned came from three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and multi-sprint car team owner Tony Stewart:
One more time for posterity sake, here’s the final results (and starting position) of Saturday’s main event:
1. Jason Johnson (2); 2. Donny Schatz (5); 3. Shane Stewart (8); 4. Daryn Pittman (1); 5. Kyle Larson (21); 6. Jamie Veal (4); 7. Chad Kemenah (6); 8. Greg Hodnett (18); 9. Ian Madsen (23); 10. David Gravel (11); 11. Brad Sweet (7); 12. Rico Abreu (17); 13. Danny Lasoski (19); 14. Tim Kaeding (9); 15. Kraig Kinser (25); 16. Logan Schuchart (24); 17. Terry McCarl (10); 18. Sammy Swindell (12); 19. Lucas Wolfe (20); 20. Dusty Zomer (14); 21. Jeff Swindell (16); 22. Kerry Madsen (3); 23. Dale Blaney (22); 24. Craig Dollansky (15); 25. James McFadden (13).
Lap Leaders: Pittman 1-10, J. Johnson 11, Pittman 12, Schatz 13-26, J. Johnson 27-43, Schatz 44-45, J. Johnson 46-50.
Hard-charger award: Kyle Larson.