WEST FARGO — The World of Outlaws sprint car racing series began its 90-plus season nearly 10 months ago near Daytona Beach, Fla.. Since then, the series has crisscrossed the country from Pennsylvania to California.
This weekend, the curtain closes on the Outlaws’ 41st season at the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. with West Fargo drive Donny Schatz sitting eight points behind Brad Sweet of Grass Valley, Calif.
This is unfamiliar territory for Schatz. In each of the last five seasons, Schatz has clinched the championship before the final weekend of the season. It is also just the second time in seven years that Schatz hasn’t been atop the standings coming into the World Finals.
The plan remains simple for Schatz: Just go out and win.
“The mindset is to go out and win every night, where you’re in this position or not. That’s how we’ve got to 10 championships — trying to win races. That’s the focus,” said Schatz who is in search of his sixth consecutive title and 11th overall. “We don’t play scenarios. We don’t play the points game. Every time we hit the race track we focus on what we need to do. We’re not going to focus on where Brad is at. We are going to focus on what we can do. If we do the right things, it’ll put us in a good spot.”
Schatz leads the series in top fives and is tied for the most top 10 finishes, backed by 11 feature wins in 70 events. Those would be career-best stats for nearly every other driver on the Outlaws tour. But Schatz admits this year hasn’t lived up to the performance of the past six championship-winning seasons in which he has won 20 or more races.
“It hasn’t been the season we’ve wanted, but here we find ourselves in contention to win another championship. It feels good,” said Schatz. “There were times in the year where we felt like we were extremely behind, but now we are running really well. That says a lot about this team. Everybody is doing their part and doing an exceptional job. We’re excited. Hopefully, we can do the right things this week and finish it off the way we expect to.”
Historically, the Dirt Track at Charlotte has been one of Schatz’s better race tracks. The driver of the Tony Stewart Racing No. 15 has 13 career wins at the semi-banked four-tenths mile oval since the facility opened in 2000. Over his past 10 starts at the speedway, Schatz has four wins and an average finish of 4.3.
Conversely, Sweet has yet to visit victory lane at the Dirt Track at Charlotte and has an average finish of 8.3 over the last 10 events at the track. If the law of averages holds true this weekend, it would be enough to give Schatz championship No. 11.
A major late-season change came for the Schatz and the Tony Stewart Racing team in October as they debuted their brand new Ford engine. When Stewart’s NASCAR team moved from Chevrolet to Ford in 2017, the race was on to bring the TSR sprint cars over to the Ford camp as well.
After the 2018 season, Schatz’s long-time crew chief, Rick Warner, transitioned to the research and development of the Ford sprint car engine to expedite the process. That promoted long-time car chief and Watertown, S.D., native, Steve Swenson, into the role of crew chief for 2019.
After months of testing, the Ford FPS 410 sprint car engine made its maiden voyage between the rails of Schatz’s No. 15 machine on Oct. 4-5 at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Right off the bat, it recorded two third-place finishes. Since then, Schatz has collected a pair of wins with the Ford engine. The first of which marked the first time a Ford-powered sprint car won with the World of Outlaws win since August of 1998.
“Everybody has done a great job getting this motor program to where it’s at. Obviously, we are continually making changes and making tweaks to progress it,” said Schatz. “It was a great decision by Tony (Stewart) with 10 races to go in the season to get it in the car and see where we stacked up. There was some question about the timing of debuting the motor being in a tight points race, but this is about building towards the future.”
Schatz has been involved in two of the closest points battles in Outlaws history. In 2009, he won it by 19 points. In 2013, he fell shy by 12.
The 2019 championship race is the closest in series history with two races remaining. If Sweet can claim the title, it would be his first and the second for former NASCAR star and team-owner Kasey Kahne.
If Schatz can come from behind to steal it, it would further cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever wheel a sprint car and get him one step closer to Steve Kinser’s all-time record of 20 Outlaws championships.