Brad Sweet could’ve been careful. He could’ve put the Kasey Kahne Racing #49 in cruise control. With a front row starting spot, all he needed was to finish 22nd or better to seal a fifth consecutive World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car championship.
But “The Big Cat” had no intentions of taking it easy to close out 2023. He gave the sold-out grandstands what they paid for.
Sweet slipped back slightly to start the 25-lapper on Saturday night. But the Grass Valley native who now calls nearby Placerville home rallied back to snatch the lead late from Rico Abreu after a side-by-side duel. Sweet then held on to put the exclamation mark on his title campaign with his first win at The Dirt Track at Charlotte.
“Just happy to be here in front of this large crowd,” Sweet said. “Happy we were able to get our NAPA Auto Parts car in Victory Lane. We’ve been trying here for a long time. I think with the points you’re always so conservative, but tonight we had a car capable of doing it. I was able to be pretty conservative on the bottom and keep my tires under me and just kind of snuck by Rico there at the end and tried to just hold him off there coming to the checkered.”
Sweet’s 11th victory of 2023 with The Greatest Show on Dirt elevated his career total to 90, moving him within five of Dave Blaney’s total of 95, which is eighth all-time. It was also his first triumph at the Charlotte oval in his 38th attempt. With the fifth consecutive championship, Sweet equaled the second longest streak of all-time and is one away from Steve Kinser’s record mark of six straight.
Brian Brown and Sweet brought the field to green for the season finale, and it was Brown leading the way on the opening lap. On the second circuit, Abreu ripped the top around Sweet to take over the runner-up spot.
Abreu quickly began his pursuit of Brown and closed in little by little over the next few laps. The St. Helena, CA native attempted a slider on Brown early but couldn’t clear him. Only a couple laps later, traffic presented an issue for Brown and allowed Abreu to roar around him on the top for the lead.
Behind the two leaders, Friday’s winner – Brent Marks – was coming to life as he rolled by Sweet for third on Lap 9. Then only one lap later, he slid Brown to take control of second. Sweet followed suit by making a move on Brown to climb into the third spot.
Both Marks and Sweet began pursuit of Abreu as the race crossed the halfway point. The Pennsylvanian trimmed Abreu’s lead all the way down to barely more than two tenths on Lap 16. But he saw a surging Sweet drive by him for second on the next time around.
Sweet then began to cut into Abreu’s lead as the two used entirely different lines. Abreu pounded the top around the fence while Sweet patiently rolled the bottom. With only four laps remaining, Sweet had knocked Abreu’s lead under two tenths of a second as the two went side by side.
“I think it takes two different setups. You’re either set up to run the top and go real fast, or you’re set up to go real slow around the bottom,” Sweet said. “I just felt like we needed to be on the bottom there with everything we had going. I feel like you can keep your tires under you and keep them cool down there, and it seems to pay off. It seems like passing lapped cars is even harder on the top when the guy is real patient on the bottom. So, I just tried to be patient.”
Ultimately, patience paid off for Sweet. Coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 23, Abreu didn’t hit the top as smoothly as he had been, and Sweet capitalized by completing the pass on the front straightaway.
With the lead in his possession, only two more laps stood between him and closing out his title campaign with a trip to Victory Lane. He wheeled the Napa Auto Parts #49 smoothly around the 4/10-mile two more times to claim the checkered flag.
“It’s just really neat to cap it off with a win like this, and it’s basically like a walk-off homer,” Sweet said. “It just feels really good, and were going to celebrate… I’m just super happy. It’s just such a relief. These seasons are so long and so grueling and so hard. It’s just unbelievable that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
For the second time in three nights, Abreu brought home the runner-up spot, marking his 17th World of Outlaws podium of the year – by far the most for any competitor not running the full schedule. Despite losing out on a potential win late, Abreu kept his head up and looked at the result as an opportunity to absorb a lesson.
“I think you learn more losing these races than you do winning them,” Abreu said. “You’re racing the best in the country, so your margin for error is so minimal. You have lapped traffic running side-by-side in front of you eight laps into the race. You’re just trying to manipulate and pick and choose which lanes to run. My car was set up to run the top, and I committed up there. You win and lose those races. It’s just part of it.”
Rounding out the final podium of the 2023 World of Outlaws season was Logan Schuchart aboard the Shark Racing #1S. The result helped him lock up the fifth spot in points as he entered the night in a close battle with Donny Schatz for the spot. The Hanover, PA native found speed on the top and stuck to it throughout the race.
“When I was racing with Carson a little earlier in the race, he kind of went to the bottom and that’s why I got by him. It looked like he slipped off the bottom a little bit,” Schuchart explained. “So, I didn’t want that to happen to me, and I didn’t know what it felt like. I didn’t want to go somewhere I didn’t want to go. So, I just kind of stuck to pounding the top of the racetrack and seeing what I could make happen up there. Once the tires started going away the last couple laps, I couldn’t run it in there as hard as I wanted to anymore. But all in all, a great end to our season to finish on the podium.”