Sweet success: Can the Big Cat close in Knoxville again?

Sweet success: Can the Big Cat close in Knoxville again?
Ken Simon

As the defending winner of the Knoxville Nationals, Brad Sweet was greeted at the Sprint Car Capital of the World with the unveiling of his championship pole. 
The 33-year-old driver of the No. 49 NAPA sprint car then moved inside the half-mile dirt track to start the new tradition of the reigning champion raising his flag in Victory Lane.
While the acknowledgments are memorable, the confidence Sweet gained by beating Donny Schatz for the 2018 Knoxville Nationals title is immeasurable. 
Sweet’s belief in himself and his Kasey Kahne Racing team grew over the week leading up to the 50-lap feature, first when he won the Capitani Classic on Sunday and then on his qualifying night. He earned more points than his 97 other competitors to start the main event on the pole. Despite cautions slowing the pace over the closing laps, Sweet wasn’t nervous when the race came down to a two-lap shootout with Schatz.
“Knowing you could win makes winning that first Knoxville Nationals even better,” Sweet told RacinBoys.com. “No one could say we lucked into it. We basically beat the best straight up. We hit the bottom, which is a really hard line to hit. We feel if we can accomplish that, beat Donny at Knoxville, that’s really given us the confidence to keep on winning these big races."
A late caution in last year's main event bunched the field, but it didn't stop Sweet's march to Victory Lane.
“At first, I wasn’t happy to see that last caution, but knowing I could hold him off, I’m happy it went down like that. It made the race a lot more exciting for the fans.”
Since Sweet won WoO rookie honors in 2014, the only champion the series has known is Schatz. But with each year, Sweet’s skills have sharpened. He has learned more about the tracks and his team. And he has gained expertise from watching Schatz, particularly at Knoxville, where the defending WoO champion has won 10 times.
“We’ve been right on the verge—the second-best guy for the last couple of years,” Sweet said. “You’re always working to beat the best and become the best. We’ve worked really hard to get to that point where we could contend for a Knoxville Nationals. 
“That week, we were just zoned in. We got the car just right, and everything kind of went right. I feel that winning the Nationals has given myself and the team confidence, just kind of knowing we could do it. We’re also getting more and more experience and jelling more as a team. We feel we’re getting better. We’re not just going backwards.”
Since triumphing over Schatz one year ago in the second closest finish in Nationals history, Kasey Kahne Racing’s alpha driver has collected 17 additional victories. At the start of the 2019 season, Sweet was aligned with veteran sprint car mechanic/tire specialist turned crew chief Eric Prutzman. The second-generation racer worked under Ricky Warner with Schatz during four of his 10 title seasons.  
The partnership has been invaluable for Sweet. Together, he and Prutzman have won a series-best 12 races, including the King’s Royal at Eldora Speedway last month and Sweet’s first win at I-55 Raceway last weekend. He currently leads the World of Outlaws standings by two points over Schatz.
“He’s learned from Donny and Ricky and those guys what it takes to win races,” Sweet said of his crew chief. “Plus my experience after six years on the tour—everything has just come together. We’re at the right place, and we both have enough experience to put the pieces together but we’re jelling and I think we’re only going to get better. 
“We push each other pretty hard. We both have high expectations and high goals. This really isn’t a surprise to us because of what we think we can accomplish. We set out to win 20 races and the championship and contend for another Knoxville Nationals and the King’s Royal.  We feel like we have the best team, the best car owner, the best engines. We have everything we need, we just need to execute and capitalize on the opportunity that we have.”
Sweet is grateful to Kasey Kahne for the opportunity to compete with this caliber of team. Since his friend retired from full-time NASCAR competition, Sweet says Kahne has been a huge asset to the organization.
“He’s the most passionate person about sprint car racing that I’ve ever met,” Sweet said. “He wants to talk about it more than I want to talk about it, and that says a lot. I’m enjoying his company. It’s nice to see him have fun and just being really relaxed.
“The NASCAR thing, for those guys that do it, it wears them down. By the end, I think he was just worn out. It’s refreshing to see him having a good time and smiling a lot. He’s definitely hands-on with the race cars. He definitely pushes us to be better, for sure.”
On Thursday, Sweet will start the process of defending his Knoxville title in time trials. Although he has been on a rollately, Sweet feels his toughest competitor will still be behind the wheel of the No. 15 Tony Stewart Racing machine. Schatz qualified 10th on Wednesday, transferred from the B-Main and started 24th in the feature before finishing 11th. He’s 10th in the points after the first night.
“I think Donny is still the guy to beat,” Sweet said. “You can't take his record away, and even if he's having an off year, Knoxville is still a place where he’s unbelievable at. He’s been able to elevate every year that I can remember watching him, to run first or second.
“Until he stops doing that, then I don’t think you can’t consider him the guy to beat, honestly. I know we’re running good. You can be the favorite all you want, but he’s the guy to beat in my opinion.”
One thing is certain: should Sweet win at Knoxville on Saturday, the post-race will be memorable. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Sweet’s recent successes are his victory celebrations. His genuine reaction has made the Big Cat an instant fan favorite.
“When you see that emotion, that’s just raw,” Sweet said. “It’s hard work. It’s grinding it out for years. It’s dreaming about that moment, and when it happens, it’s just all of that hard work, all the ups and downs in racing has paid off. Those moments are once-in-a-lifetime moments. So I just try to cherish them.
“I think if that joy ever goes away, I don’t think I’d want to be a race car driver any more. It’s just me. It’s how passionate I am about it. It’s how much I care about it. I know you only get so many years to be at this level—and I know how hard it is to get to it. So I’m very appreciative of it, and I want to cherish every time we get to win one of those big races or have a year like this.
“We want to be working hard, but we want to be enjoying it, too.”

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