Kyle Larson takes first on opening night

Sentinel photo submitted by DAVE BIRO III
Kyle Larson celebrates his victory at Knoxville Raceway, Wednesday, in Knoxville, Iowa. It was the opening night of the 57th annual Knoxville Nationals.

KNOXVILLE, Iowa — Kyle Larson drove to victory in the opening night of the 57th annual Knoxville Nationals Wednesday at Knoxville Raceway.

Larson, 25, of Elk Grove, Calif., put himself in good position for Saturday night’s main event, however, due to his NASCAR contract restrictions, he may not be able to race — it would be within a 24-hour window of the NASCAR Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, a track where Larson has won before.

He was fifth in Nationals points after his win.

“Right now, I’m not allowed to race,” Larson said. “In my contract with Chip (Ganassi), I have to have a day off before I’m on track in Cup. That’s why you see me race a lot of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays because we travel Thursday and we’re on track Friday. Saturday we’re in Michigan practicing and race the next day, so there would be a conflict there.”

A phone conversation between Larson and Ganassi was imminent.

“I’m going to talk to Chip,” Larson said. “I hope he understands how big this event is to me and that we are in a good spot in the Cup series in points and wins and bonus points, and can maybe allow me to come race here. I’ve got my fingers crossed. I think I know what his answer will be, but hopefully I’m wrong.”

He did race last year on Saturday night at Knoxville, winning the B-main and finishing fifth in the A-main. There was no NASCAR race Sunday.

Larson started on the pole of the 25-lap preliminary feature in Paul Silva’s potent No. 57. Austin McCarl got the jump on Larson, but he quickly made up ground taking the lead on the opening lap.

From there, he was never seriously challenged as he recorded his eighth sprint car win of the season, this one worth $12,000.

“It was a good race,” Larson said. “I’d say I didn’t get a good start, but I didn’t really get to control that start. I was able to get the lead quick and run the bottom decent for seven or eight laps. But, I started to get free and having to slow down too much. I tried running a different line that I tried in the heat race that felt okay. I didn’t really have the grip there. Once I got up top, I felt like I had good speed and could slide the lappers pretty easily and carry a lot of speed on entry.”

Nine-time Nationals champion Donny Schatz started sixth and drove up to second and closed on Larson, but never got close enough to make a move for the lead, settling for second. Schatz did earn the most points Wednesday night with 492 after setting fourth quick time and marching from eighth to win his heat race.

“I would have like to won, but Kyle did a phenomenal job and when it was time to move around he did, and got through traffic really good,” Schatz said. “Your goal coming in the gate, regardless whether you’ve won this race, or never made this race, is first get in that A-main. You can’t win it unless you get in it. That hurdle is out of the way and now we’ll focus on what’s next.”

Pennsylvania’s Greg Hodnett started third, dropped to fifth during the main event and then rebounded to round out the podium continuing a strong week in Iowa.

Brad Sweet raced to a fourth place finish after starting seventh. McCarl completed the top five and reported that his car was on seven cylinders at the end.

Fast timer Kerry Madsen finished sixth after starting eighth. Shane Stewart was seventh. Paul McMahan completed a solid night with an eighth place finish. NASCAR truck series regular Christopher Bell started and finished ninth. Bill Balog started 18th and finished 10th.

Madsen set fast time over the 48-car field with a lap of 14.886. Kevin Thomas Jr., Jac Haudenschild, Matt Moro, Schatz and Balog won the 10-lap heat races. Pennsylvania’s Lucas Wolfe won the B-main, but had an engine blow in the feature.

The top 10 in points after Wednesday are: Schatz, 492; Sweet, 489; Madsen, 487; Hodnett, 472; Larson, 469; Stewart, 469; McCarl, 466; McMahan, 463; Zomer, 438; and Wolfe, 438.