KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Less than three weeks ago, Justin Sanders wasn’t planning to make his Knoxville Nationals debut when a message from Kevin Swindell appeared on his phone, and now he’s nearly locked into Saturday’s $175,000 to win Nationals finale.
While racing at the isolated Skagit Speedway in Washington, Sanders desperately searched for cell service to learn why Swindell wanted to chat.
Finally, the two connected, and Sanders received an offer he could hardly believe — a chance to wheel the Swindell Speedlab No. 39 for some races in the Midwest, including the 61st annual Knoxville Nationals.
Prior to their deal, Sanders’ only Knoxville Raceway experience came during the 2016 360 Nationals.
“He (Swindell) said, ‘Do you have any plans for the Nationals?’” Sanders told SPEED SPORT. “I was like ‘Oh my god. What the hell? That’s crazy.’ I thought ‘Me, really? All the guys you could get you want me, really?”
Little did he know, Sanders had been on the radar for a while. Swindell frequently watches California racing via stream, and Sanders, an Aromas, Calif., native, has racked up dozens of wins in the Golden State in recent years, including a whopping 21 triumphs last season.
“It was important for me to give a guy like that who’s won a bunch of races a shot,” Swindell said. “He’s proven to be a hell of a race car driver, and this is something he definitely deserves to be doing.
“I’m one of those guys that if a race is on, I probably watch it,” Swindell continued. “Most of the time by the time California is on, that’s all that’s left, and I end up watching most nights at Ocean (Speedway), most nights of all that stuff. I’ve kind of never understood why he doesn’t get to do a bit more than he does.”
Sanders and the Swindell team got acquainted at last weekend’s Knoxville 360 Nationals, Sunday’s Capitani Classic, and Monday’s Front Row Challenge heading into Wednesday night’s 410 Nationals opener.
The prelim night of racing provided ups and downs. Qualifying saw one of the highlights as Sanders timed third quick out of 51 entries. In the heat race, an ill-timed caution cost him a potential chance to transfer. After sneaking into the prelim feature with the last transfer from the B main, Sanders put together a solid charge from 24th to 15th.
The performance was enough to slot them fifth in points, and the top-16 after the two prelims are guaranteed a spot in Saturday’s 50-lap feature, putting Sanders on the bubble of being locked into the field for Saturday’s $175,000-to-win main event.
“I can’t believe it, honestly,” Sanders said of likely making the main event. “It’s pretty crazy to think that I might be in the Knoxville Nationals A-main with (Donny) Schatz, (Kyle) Larson, and (Brad) Sweet. All those names, it’s pretty insane.”
Swindell saw the night as a plan coming together and a potential confidence booster for Sanders after their prior races didn’t go the way he might’ve hoped.
“He (Sanders) said ‘I don’t know how good I’ll be but I’ll try,’” Swindell explained. “And I said ‘that’s all we can ask for. We’ll get laps at 360 (Nationals), we’ll get laps Sunday and we’ll get laps at Oskaloosa, and by the time we get to the prelim night you’re going to be fine.’ And I guess it kind of held true.
“It’s awesome for him,” Swindell added. “We should be in the show with what we have, I would assume. It’s so cool. I feel like he felt like he was letting me down the past few days.”
Rarely has a driver seeded in the top five after the opening prelim not locked directly in, but Sanders plans to wait until the points have been tallied tomorrow night and still show him in the top-16 before he takes a breath and celebrates a goal he wasn’t sure he’d ever accomplish.
“I’m praying to God that the 98% chance stays in my favor,” Sanders said. “That’s all I want is to lock into this main. I thought it would be something I’d never do, lock into the Knoxville Nationals. You always see people coming here, and there’s 100-plus cars. And for somebody like me to lock in, I mean, it’s my first 410 Nationals.”
Now all that Sanders and the Swindell crew can do is wait and see as their fate is decided by how tomorrow unfolds, but as has been noted, the math favors them.
The 29-year-old appears set to line up among the best drivers sprint car racing has to offer in the sport’s biggest race after capitalizing on an opportunity he wasn’t sure he’d even accept until he was persuaded by those close to him.
“I honestly was debating not doing it,” Sanders admitted. “I was like I don’t want to come out and embarrass myself. I don’t think I’m ready. I literally have to jump right into Knoxville Nationals from 360 Nationals. You don’t get a lot of laps. I mean, I’ve been on two half-miles before this, one in a 360 one in a 410. The 410 one I did I was horrible.
“I was talking to my parents and everybody,” Sanders continued. “And they were like ‘you have to do it. Even if you go out there and do terrible, you have to do it. It’s something you have to do.’ And I’m going to tell you what, I’m so glad I did.”