Donny Schatz received the loudest boos during the Kings Royal driver introductions. Rico Abreu received the loudest cheers. One of dirt racing’s biggest events ended the same way.
Abreu – a fast-rising star in racing – made a final charge at Schatz that fired up the roughly 20,000 spectators at Eldora Speedway on Saturday night. But Schatz proved once again he’s the star others are still shooting for.
Schatz held off Abreu by 0.519 seconds to win his third Kings Royal crown (2007, 2009) and claim his spot atop Eldora’s huge wooden throne on the victory lane stage.
It’s good to be king.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” Schatz said of the fans’ pre-race welcome that received a few more boos than fellow veteran Sammy Swindell. “Last year was pretty heartwarming because the people that booed, booed louder and the people that cheered tried to overpower the boos. It was pretty cool. It was almost a 50/50 mix. Any time you go behind Sammy (in driver introductions), you’re going to feel good. Sammy is an awesome guy and a hell of a racer. He’s known how to rustle the feathers of fans forever and get plenty of boos. That’s great. You’re not going to make everybody like you. If they don’t like you, just be glad they’re here being fans enjoying the races just like I am.”
And nobody enjoyed the Kings Royal more than Schatz. Well, except maybe the fan who won $31,340 in the 50/50 raffle.
Schatz, who drives for Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing, started third and never dropped below fifth.
He passed Brad Sweet for the lead after 19 laps. Schatz, Christopher Bell and Abreu then broke from the field and raced around Eldora nearly bumper to bumper. But Bell, who had charged up from 14th, slammed into the Turn 4 wall two laps later.
With 10 laps left Schatz led Abreu by 1.189 seconds. But Abreu reeled in Schatz and pulled side-by-side as they crossed the start/finish line on the final lap. Abreu didn’t have enough momentum to make the pass and settled into second for his best Kings Royal finish.
“I have to race a little smarter at the end of these races,” Abreu said. “We’ve been right there putting ourselves in position. It’s baby steps that separate the men from the boys in winning these races.”
The win was the 15th for Schatz this season. The driver who has won seven of the last 10 World of Outlaws points titles (including the last two) had an uncharacteristically slow start to the season. He needed 28 races to get his first seven wins. After Saturday he’d won eight of the last 18.
Eldora hosted three races during the Kings Royal weekend with the Jokers Wild on Thursday and Knight Before the Kings Royal on Friday. Schatz finished second and Abreu third in both races.
“I knew Rico would be coming. Rico’s a gasser,” Schatz said. “He’s an awesome racer. He’s an awesome person. If I was going to get beat by someone – which I don’t want to get beat – I guess I was going to be okay if it was him.”
A record-tying 60 cars signed up for the Kings Royal. Schatz bested them all in an event that included 11 past Kings Royal winners.
“I haven’t been to a race with 60 cars in a long time. That’s crazy the amount of cars,” Schatz said. “Three nights was really neat. I thought it might be one night too many, but people seemed to love it. They’re the reason we’re here. If they’re going to have three nights I’m going to be at all of them.”
Brad Sweet, Greg Wilson and Brian Brown rounded out the top five.
Brown led the first nine laps. Swindell, who finished 12th, led the next three before Sweet paced the field through lap 19.
“I was smiling in the first 20 laps when we drove to the lead there,” Sweet said. “But I know how long this race is and I didn’t get through lapped cars there in the beginning. … Once (Schatz and Bell) had position on me, I thought they were a little bit better at the end.
“We’ll drink a few beers tonight. We won’t celebrate as much as Donny, but we’ll have some fun. These weekends come once a year and you have to enjoy them.”