Story By: NICK GRAZIANO / WORLD OF OUTLAWS – CONCORD, NC – The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series will make history at the Nov. 7-9 Can-Am World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte.
For the first time since 2013 the championship won’t be decided until the checkered flag flies for the final time this season.
Brad Sweet, of Grass Valley, Calif., leads reigning champion Donny Schatz, of Fargo, N.D., by eight points after a novel-worthy season of dueling for positions every race and trading the points lead about every month. They’ll have two races – Friday and Saturday – to put a period on that story and try to be the champion it’s written about. (Teams will qualify for Friday and Saturday’s races on Thursday.)
Sweet is searching for his first World of Outlaws championship – second for Kasey Kahne Racing – and Schatz is going for this 11th title – 10th for Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing. It would also be Schatz’s sixth championship in-a-row.
GOING FOR THE TITLE
“It’s great that we’re in a position to win the points,” Sweet said. “We’ve never been in that situation. Obviously, we’re going to go in there and do what we’ve been doing all season, try to win each night. Hopefully at the end of the night it goes our way and be crowned the champions.”
There was a point in the season Schatz wasn’t sure if he would be in contention for another champion, he said. But now that he is, he knows exactly what needs to be done.
“It’s going to take us getting to victory lane to have an opportunity to win it,” Schatz said. “It’s not putting too much emphasis on it (the points). We’ve had a great year, win or lose. We’re going to finish it the best we can. We’re really building toward the future. To be able to be in this position at the end of the year… at one point in the year we thought we wouldn’t be. We’re excited. We’re happy with it. We’ll continue on what’s got us ten championships in the past and hopefully it works for number eleven.”
Sweet and Schatz have been the most consistent drivers this year. Both have finished outside the top-10 only seven times in 70 races. They also both have more than 40 top-five finishes – Sweet, 45, and Schatz, 46 – with the majority of them being podium finishes.
However, with 11 wins, Schatz hasn’t had his typical season of winning more than 20 races and having the championship locked up long before the World Finals. He’s put his performance on his shoulders, giving his season a C grade. However, he gives his team an A. Schatz called 2019 a building year. Long-time crew member Steve “Scuba” Swenson was promoted to being Schatz’s crew chief this year and new, younger, crew members were added.
“We’ve jelled decently,” Schatz said. “We haven’t jelled exactly like when we’ve had success in the past. That’s all part of building. When you take a group of guys who have been together as long as we were, and you make changes, you change one thing it’s like changing ten.
“I’m proud of them guys. We’ve had a lot of fun. It’s just been a different dynamic for me and Scuba. It’s always been an older core team. The guys in the past, we were all about the same age. We added a couple of younger guys to the team and they’re really motivated. They’re really excited about doing good. They like winning races. We just wish we could win more races together. And we will. It’s something we just keep working on. At no point did anyone give up on anybody.”
Sweet is having a career year with 16 wins, so far – breaking his record of winning at most nine races in a season. He’s in his second year with crew chief Eric Prutzman – who helped bring Sweet his first Knoxville Nationals win. In their short time together, Sweet said he has already seen the team grow from good to great.
“There’s a point in the season when we had the car right on and really dialed in,” Sweet said. “Later in the season we’ve had to dig a little better to figure out how to get the car right. I think that’s what makes a good team really good is getting through adversity and figuring out when the car isn’t right and how to fix it. We’re still learning together for sure. There’s going to be ups and downs. But I feel like in two years we’ve accomplished a lot of things.”
Sweet has full confidence in his team heading into Charlotte. To him, they’re the team to beat. There’s only so much they can be controlled, though. Their plan is to focus on the 49 car and control their own destiny, he said.
After more than 20 years in the sport, Schatz said confidence is almost irrelevant.
“I know what my capabilities in the car are,” Schatz said. “I know what their (TSR’s) capabilities are with the car. That goes beyond confidence. That’s just an expected thing. We take it for granted probably but when you’re around someone enough and you trust them like we do, confidence is a word you have to question because it shifts.”
He added the team’s confidence doesn’t shift. Their relationship is like a marriage.
“A good marriage I guess you can say,” Schatz said. “You trust the other person to do the right thing all of the time. And even if they don’t, we make sure we all learn from our mistakes and we don’t allow it to happen again.”
PREPARING FOR THE BATTLE
Schatz has historically performed better at The Dirt Track at Charlotte than Sweet, especially during the World Finals. Schatz gained eight points on Sweet last year and 36 points on him the two years prior. However, both championship competitors stated you never know what to expect at the track with varying weather and track conditions.
“We’re going to try and get qualified well for both shows,” said Schatz, who has 12 wins at the track. “Obviously, to get on the front of the Heat and into that Dash is important. My guys have had a good ability to do that all year. So, hopefully we’ll be in a position to do that again and then we’ll focus on the race individually on race days. That’s how we’re going to go at it.”
Charlotte is a home race for Mooresville, N.C. located KKR. Sweet has yet to win at the track but had the opportunity to test at the 4/10-mile track two weeks ago.
“We just want to be as prepared as possible and we definitely have had some good runs and good notes from Charlotte,” Sweet said. “We’ll look at all that and go in there with the best possible package we can come up with.”
Sweet admitted there’s more on the line this weekend. His goal is to not let that affect his performance. As long as he and the team make good decisions, Sweet said he believes they’ll be ready for the challenge.
Several obstacles can face both drivers throughout the weekend with the ever-changing nature of racing. Schatz will rely on his experience to conquer them and try to come home with another championship.
“We don’t know what those obstacles are, who we’ll be around,” Schatz said. “You take it as it comes. That’s part of the name of the game. That’s what put us in this position. Things aren’t always premeditated. You have to be able to react when something is put in front of you. That’s something that experience takes a big part of. We’ll hope that that experience can help us in that situation.”