Gravel takes checkers on Day 1 at Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Iowa – David Gravel passed Williams Grove Speedway regular Greg Hodnett and went on to win his preliminary night feature during the 53rd Annual Knoxville Nationals on Wednesday night.

Gravel, of Watertown, Conn., earned $12,000 for his first career win at the historic oval.

“We blew our best motor up and this is our little motor,” Gravel said. “It ran awesome. I had no fuel left at all. I was worried about making weight, but we did. It was a stressful night. It’s awesome to win here. Once I got out front, I wanted to run the top. This is a race we wanted to win and we’re in good position for Saturday night.”

Hodnett, of Thomasville, started on the pole and grabbed the early lead as Gravel advanced from his fourth starting spot to second with one lap completed.

A caution flag for Johnny Herrera’s stopped sprinter slowed the fast pace. Gravel passed Hodnett on the restart, but the caution flag flew again negating his pass. Hodnett, the 2012 Grove champion, lead one more lap before Gravel made the pass work.

Brad Sweet, who races for NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne and competes in the Nationwide series, passed Hodnett for third.

Gravel went unchallenged for the remainder of the 25-lap main event and took the win over Sweet. California’s Tim Kaeding charged from the 12th starting spot to finish third. Hodnett faded to fourth and World of Outlaws point leader Daryn Pittman came from last to finish fifth.

“Not bad, but it could have been better,” Hodnett said. “The engine was running warm all night. I don’t know if I lost water and it got on the left rear because coming off turn two that one time, I almost spun out. I don’t know if we’ll be in the Saturday night A-main. It will be close. We’ll keep plugging away to see if we can get better.”

Shane Stewart, Justin Henderson, Paul McMahan, Jason Sides and six-time Nationals champion Donny Schatz completed the top 10.

McMahan set fast time over the 49-car field with a lap of 15.210. The five heat races were won by Don Droud Jr., Brandon Wimmer, Randy Hannagan, Kaeding and Herrera.

Drivers earn points every time they’re on the track. After the Thursday night preliminary feature, the top 16 drivers in points will be locked into the Saturday night finale, which pays $150,000 to win and $9,500 to start.

Former Port Royal Speedway champion Lance Dewease of Fayetteville was scheduled to race on Thursday night, along with Hanover’s Logan Schuchart.

Danny Dietrich of Gettysburg, Brent Marks of Myerstown and Jacob Allen of Hanover raced on Wednesday night, but didn’t qualify.

Rising NASCAR star Kyle Larson also didn’t qualify. He will fly back and forth from Watkins Glen, N.Y. this weekend to race at Knoxville and compete in the Nationwide series event as well.