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Sprint cars: Knoxville win should be big boost to Jason Johnson’s season, career

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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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500