An in-depth look at the 2016 Rookie of the Nationals Class by Guest Writer Anthony Corini

Sunday, July 31, 2016
The Knoxville Nationals are the undisputed highest spectacle of sprint car racing and on the second week in August all eyes turn to the “Sprint Car Capital of the World”.

As a sprint car driver, it means a lot just to compete in “The Nationals” and while the $150,000 grand prize is the ultimate goal, there are plenty of “races within the race”. The one that always stands out to me is the Rookie of the Nationals.

There is no race track like Knoxville Raceway, nor is their an event as strenuous and challenging as the Knoxville Nationals, but each year a group of drivers make their way to Marion County in August to compete with savvy veterans for the first time. If you’re an up and coming driver planning on making Knoxville an annual stop, you have to start somewhere. In the past decade, just one rookie driver has made the A Main at the Knoxville Nationals on their first try and that was none other than NASCAR phenom Kyle Larson.

The place to start is to rise to the top of the drivers that are establishing themselves on the Nationals radar the same time you are. Take Daryn Pittman, the 1998 Rookie of the Nationals, for example. He finished 16th in the B main that year and now, coming into 2016, he has qualified for 13 Knoxville Nationals including an impressive six straight. Stevie Smith, Dale Blaney and Randy Hannagan, among other big names, have been awarded the Rookie of the Nationals in years past. Each time you go back to Knoxville, you learn more. But first, you go there with an empty notebook, willing to learn and ready to improve as the grueling week continues.

Last year’s Rookie of the Nationals race featured ASCS Standout and 2015 feature winner at the Winter Heat, Aaron Reutzel, barely edging out relatively unheard of Pennsylvania Posse member Logan Wagner by three car lengths at the checkered on Saturday’s B main.

This year’s rookie class has the making of a photo finish once again. California is well represented after taking home the honors twice in the last four years. On the opposite spectrum, an Australian has never taken home the title, but Daniel Harding has made his presence known this summer and will certainly be in contention. Without going any further, I introduce the Knoxville Nationals Rookies Class of 2016:

1x – Chad Trout – Dover, Pennsylvania – Long-time car owner Jim Walker is retiring after this year and wants to see his car at the famed Knoxville Raceway one last time. Chad Trout is his wheelman this year as they call Lincoln and Williams Grove Speedway home. This will be Chad’s first time ever stepping foot at the famed Marion County Fairgrounds and his main goal throughout the weekend will be improvement. Chad and the Jim Walker team plan to be in town early to test and tune at the KCP Capitani Classic.

5H – Cory Eliason – Selma, California – The California product and Van Dyke Motorsports program has moved shop to the Midwest for the summer and has been extremely impressive in limited time at the famed Knoxville Raceway as he scored an eye-opening top-10 in his debut. He’s only going to get better as the summer goes on and at this pace could be the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Nationals. Cory has had a breakout season in Northern California, most recently completing a sweep of the weekend in King of the West action in Hanford and Stockton. Cory will be getting valuable seat time during the 26th Annual Arnold Motor Supply 360 Nationals presented by Great Southern Bank.

7J – Joe Swanson – Etna Green, Indiana – The accomplished pavement driver has dabbled into the dirt racing world this year and has shown flashes of brilliance during his learning curve. Swanson has improved significantly throughout his many Artic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions races this summer. Expect Swanson to show noticeable improvement towards the end of the week.

8M – TJ Michael – Plano, Texas – A native of Texas, but has cut his teeth racing in the extremely competitive F.A.S.T series in Ohio before making the jump to Tony Stewart’s Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions tour full-time in 2016 where he sits a respectable seventh in points. TJ rarely puts the car in a bad spot and thus is the leading contender to win rookie of the year on that circuit. The family-owned team’s program hasn’t been overly tested at the half-mile stage and the team still hasn’t made a final decision of if they will run Knoxville or wait a year to strengthen their big track program but regardless, if TJ shows up in his 8M or someone else’s car, he will be one to watch for come Saturday night when they are naming the Rookie of the Nationals.

09 Matt Juhl – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – Currently eigth in Badlands Motor Speedway points, Juhl garnered national attention when he set quick time with the World of Outlaws there earlier this summer. Juhl has made multiple appearances at Knoxville this year highlighted by a top-five finish on May 14th and has always time trialed well. If Matt can lay down a good time trial lap like he has multiple times throughout the season, look out.

12 Daniel Harding – Canning Vale, Perth, Australia – The accomplished Australian has been respectable since arriving for his American tour, including an impressive heat race win at Wayne County during Ohio Speedweek. He scored a 15th-place finish at Knoxville on July 1st. Back home, Harding’s season was highlighted by a win at Perth Motorplex on February 26th. Harding has raw talent and will undoubtedly improve throughout the week, similar to how he did during the Kings Royal weekend. Come Saturday night, look for Harding to be passing cars at a strong pace. Harding is pre-entered into the 360 Nationals as well.

13K Clyde Knipp – California, Missouri – The World of Outlaws rookie has undeniably had growing pains but has also undoubtedly improved steadily throughout the season. Knoxville won’t be easy for the young Midwest driver, but racing at the same track for a week will only help Knipp further down the road both at Knoxville and on the WoO tour. Look for Knipp to get show noticeable improvement as the week goes along.

35 – Kevin Hetrick – Gladstone, Illinois – The 2014 305 Knoxville Rookie of the Year has moved up to 410’s in 2016 and has been a welcomed addition to the pit area each and every Saturday night in the Marion County Fairgrounds. Hetrick sits 16th in the current Knoxville Champion Cup Series point standings and will be looking to make an impact during his first Nationals.

41x – Dominic Scelzi – Fresno, California – Dominic is yet another California standout living in the Midwest this summer. Scelzi would be the first to admit that this summer has been trying at times, yet he continues to move forward. Positively speaking however, Dominic adapted to the Knoxville black gumbo very well scoring a top-10 in his debut. Undoubtedly, the Scelzi Motorsports/Roth Motorsports entry has the equipment to compete at an elite level and Dominic absolutely has proven and shown he has the talent to compete at that level as well. This is one to keep an eye on not only throughout Iowa Speedweek, but also certainly as his promising young career unfolds. Scelzi will unquestionably improve throughout the week and has arguably the highest ceiling of drivers on this list. Scelzi will be competing in the 360 Nationals as well.

68 – Chase Johnson – Penngrove, California – The 19-year-old California product is extremely versatile competing in CRA 410 wingless, USAC National Midgets, Outlaw Kart, in addition to 360 and 410 winged sprint car competition thus far in 2016. Chase will be driving the Thomas Family Racing 68 come Knoxville. He is scheduled to be running I-55 the week before, but in a POWRI National Midget for Matt Wood Racing. Come Knoxville, Chase will rely on his experience at the Calistoga Speedway back home in Northern California.

83x – Adam Cruea – Troy, Ohio – Recently moving to 410 winged competition, Adam can be found regionally in Ohio and has recently had success at Atomic Speedway in Chillicothe. Creua tried his hand at the famous Eldora Speedway during the Kings Royal Weekend and has been making significant improvement regionally since then. Adam has improved each time he comes out this year and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue throughout and beyond the Nationals this year.

94 – Ryan Smith – Kunkletown, Pennsylvania – After a successful year with the Artic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions in 2015, which included a pair of wins at the always-tough Attica Raceway Park and Fremont Speedway, Smith had to scale back in 2016 and run a local schedule. A consistent sequence of rotten luck, including another while leading this past week at Grandview, has prevented the Warko Group #94 from victory lane. Regardless, there has been speed on a weekly basis whether it be at Williams Grove, Lincoln, or Port Royal. Smith is the only driver on this list with a World of Outlaws win to his name (2014 – Port Royal), and possesses a smooth driving style that should adapt nicely to the Knoxville Raceway as the week goes on. The decision to run Nationals has been oft-talked about in the #94 pit area and it is still not 100% certain they will race but if Smith rolls into the pit area next week, his entry would catapult him as one of the favorites to come home with the Rookie of the Nationals.