KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Though Tony Stewart was an 11-time Knoxville Nationals winning car owner coming into Saturday night at The Sprint Car Capital of The World, he had never won at Knoxville Raceway as a driver.
The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and USAC Triple Crown titlist rectified that statistic with a dominant victory during round two of the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience season.
After winning the first of two heats and starting from the pole of the 50-lap feature at the half-mile, black-dirt oval, Stewart fended off a determined Michael Waltrip early and pulled away from Ernie Francis Jr. late en route to his first-ever Knoxville victory behind the wheel.
Stewart, who won the final series title with the International Race of Champions – the tour that inspired SRX – in 2006, took the checkered flag in front by 1.607 seconds. He led 43 of 50 laps in the feature.
In victory lane after climbing from his orange No. 14, Stewart’s grin was infectious as he marveled at winning at the same place where his sprint car team – Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing – had tasted so much success through the years.
“It’s the first time I’ve been in victory lane at Knoxville (as a driver),” said Stewart. “This is where I’ve watched Donny Schatz and Steve Kinser, two of the greatest of the greats in sprint car racing. This is the place I’ve always wanted to be here, so that’s pretty cool. This is the Sprint Car Capital of the World and to win here is so special.
“For this series, we’ve been to two different surfaces in two weeks, and Ray Evernham built one hell of a race car. I think we saw that tonight,” Stewart added. “This place is challenging and it’s tough. I thought, ‘Man, if Michael Waltrip beats me on a dirt track, I’m going to have to go through therapy for weeks!’
“Michael ran a hell of a race and so did Ernie Francis … two guys that don’t have a lot of dirt experience.”
Stewart led the first 12-minute heat race from wire to wire Saturday night, while Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer Scott Bloomquist took the second heat win after a late pass of recent Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
The heat results lined up Stewart and seven-time Trans-Am Series champion Ernie Francis Jr. on the front row for the main event, with Stewart jetting into the lead on the opening lap over Francis and Bloomquist.
Bloomquist wasted little time marching into contention, taking second just before a lap-four caution for debris, and when racing resumed he pressured Stewart despite cautions on laps seven and eight for a pair of spins by 53-time Knoxville feature winner and local legend Brian Brown.
Another spin on lap nine, this one by Willy T. Ribbs in the back of the field, kept the pace segmented before the action picked back up with a lap-10 restart. That was when Bloomquist went wide in turn two and faded outside the top five as two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip made a charge forward.
Waltrip found himself second on lap 10 and wasted no time getting in Stewart’s head as the pair dueled for the top spot. Waltrip worked underneath Stewart on the 13th lap and then completed the pass one lap later with a slide job off the fourth corner.
The Owensboro, Ky., native then led the next seven laps before Stewart found some traction on the high side and drove back past Waltrip to reclaim the top spot on lap 21. It was a lead Stewart wouldn’t relinquish again.
Waltrip kept Stewart honest for a while, however. He stayed within a half second of Stewart’s bumper until a caution with 18 laps to go – sparked by a spinning Scott Bloomquist from sixth – set up a double-file restart and pinned Waltrip on the disadvantaged outside lane for the final restart.
Waltrip faded after that, with Francis taking second and Castroneves rallying back from early damage to run third with 15 laps left.
Fill-in driver Hailie Deegan, subbing for Tony Kanaan, had something to say, however.
Deegan grabbed the third position from Castroneves inside of 10 to go and then engaged in a late war for second with Francis, after the latter driver tried to bump Stewart for the lead on lap 45 and lost ground.
Deegan eventually executed a final-lap pass of Francis for the runner-up honors, while Stewart cruised home to the victory ahead of her.
It was a strong comeback from Deegan’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series effort Friday night at Nashville Superspeedway, where she finished a disappointing 21st for David Gilliland Racing.
“Honestly, that was so much fun,” said Deegan. “My goal coming into this race was proving to everyone that I deserved to be here. I feel like we did that tonight. Running second to Tony Stewart is a huge accomplishment. These cars are so much fun.
“I felt like I ran a clean race, got around the bottom, stayed consistent and ran my line.”
Francis completed the podium ahead of Castroneves and Waltrip, who ended up fifth after leading seven laps of the feature.
Bobby Labonte, Marco Andretti, Brown, Bloomquist and Ribbs closed the top 10.
Fuel pressure issues put Cup Series champion and Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott out of the race with 18 laps left, while past Indy car ace Paul Tracy retired early in the feature due to crash damage.
With his win, Stewart extended his lead atop the Camping World SRX Series point standings.
The Camping World SRX Series season continues June 26 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, the half-mile dirt track owned by Stewart. Kody Swanson will be the local all-star competing in that event.
1. 14-Tony Stewart , 2. 1-Hailie Deegan , 3. 2-Ernie Francis Jr. , 4. 3-Helio Castroneves , 5. 15-Michael Waltrip , 6. 18-Bobby Labonte , 7. 98-Marco Andretti , 8. 21-Brian Brown , 9. 00-Scott Bloomquist , 10. 17-Willy T. Ribbs , 11. 9-Bill Elliott , 12. 13-Paul Tracy .