KNOXVILLE — The green flag has officially dropped on the most exciting nine days of the year at the Sprint Car Capital of the World.

For the second straight year, the first checkered flag of the season was captured by the a north Texan that is drawing comparisons from his counterparts to one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.

“Sam is the Dale Earnhardt of the 360’s,” defending Knoxville 360 Nationals champion Giovanni Scelzi said on Thursday night after finishing second to Sam Hafertepe, Jr. 

The native of the Dallas suburb Sunnyvale roared to victory on the opening night of the 360 Knoxville Nationals presented by Great Southern Bank. Hafertepe earned $3,000 for his winning drive in the A Feature, holding off Scelzi who ran out of laps ultimately finishing within two seconds leaving the two championship contenders right in the thick of the championship hunt heading into Saturday night's final.

"I knew our car was really, really good. I had run the top side for awhile and Gio could never mount anything on the bottom early," Hafertepe said. "Gio's usually one of the guys to beat here. Being able to hold him off even though he started off on the inside of the same row as me, that was kind of everything.

"With him showing me that he couldn't get to me from the inside, it was basically game over. I basically had free reign to do what I wanted after that."

Spoken just like The Intimidator, although it was a Knoxville racing legend that Hafertepe cited for his textbook to success. After reeling in A-Main pole sitter Thomas Kennedy and shooting to the point with a slide job in turn two on lap seven, Hafertepe stayed in front opening a two-plus second lead.

"Once I got into a good rhythm on the bottom, you've seen videos of (four-time Knoxville Nationals champion Danny) Lasoski from years ago," Hafertepe said. "Once you get in that rhythm, it just seems like you get faster and faster and you can get your marks hit lap after lap."

Another Texas native, Aaron Reutzel, secured the highest point total of the night heading towards Saturday’s finale. Reutzel charged to a third-place finish in the A-Main feature race, finishing the opening night with 487 points finishing eight ahead of Ayrton Gennetten and nine points ahead of both Hafertepe and Scelzi.

“You almost don’t want to win these prelim nights, because it means you may not have qualified well,” said Reutzel. “We qualified good, got to second in our heat, and started seventh and ran third. That’s a really good points night. That’s what it’s all about for Saturday. We tried a couple things in the A and we weren’t very good early.

"All in all, our car is running around well. I’m pumped we got through this and we’re looking forward to Saturday.”

Kennedy shot out to an early lead from the pole position in the 20-lap main event ahead of Williamson, Hafertepe, Scelzi and Gennetten. By lap five, Hafertepe was cooking on the low line, passing Williamson for second on lap five.

Hafertepe reeled in Kennedy and shot to the point with a slide job in turn two on lap seven. At that point, Alex Vande Voort contacted the front stretch wall, spun and came to a stop inside turn one, bringing the only caution of the event.

Hafertepe led Kennedy, Williamson, Scelzi and Gennetten back to green. Williamson shot into second, while Reutzel moved into the top five by lap nine. While Hafertepe cruised up front, Scelzi reeled in Williamson and blew by him on the backstretch to claim second. Reutzel notched fourth on the same lap.

Hafertepe was into traffic with three laps to go, but was never seriously challenged the rest of the way in his third career win here. Scelzi held onto second, followed by Reutzel, Williamson and Kennedy.

“The car felt good, it just took me too long to get going," Scelzi said. "I started running the bottom of three and four a little harder and moved to the top of one and two. It was just a phenomenal racetrack. I love coming here and the fans are awesome. This is definitely a home racetrack for me and I want to win this one bad.”

Gennetten, Chase Randall, Matt Juhl, Cory Eliason and Parker Price-Miller rounded out the top ten. Shane Golobic set quick time over the 51-car field, while Scelzi, Randall, Price-Miller, Corey Day and Devin Kline won heats. Ryan Leavitt won the C main, and Austin McCarl claimed the B.

Golobic’s night came to an end in his heat race after destroying his car in turn four, walking away uninjured after making contact with McKenna Haase. Scott Bogucki and Nathan Mills were also able to walk away unhurt after coming together on the backstretch in the B main, sending the latter upside down.

“We had a really good race car,” said Hafertepe. “The guys just kept working all night long. We weren’t good in time trials. We weren’t good in the heat race. Then, we turned the wick up in the feature and really got it going good.”

Night two of the 32nd Annual Knoxville 360 Nationals will feature 56 more drivers competing deep into Friday night as the Courier went to press. Defending NASCAR and Knoxville 410 National champion Kyle Larson highlighted the field.

More information on the Knoxville 360 and 410 Nationals, as well Sunday's Capitani Classic, can be found at www.KnoxvilleRaceway.com.

AUTO RACING

32nd Annual 360 Knoxville Nationals Presented by Great Southern Bank 

Night one results

Time Trials (Qualifying Order), 2 laps: 1. 17W, Shane Golobic, Fremont, CA (6), 16.299; 2. 3P, Sawyer Phillips, Pleasantville, IA (2), 16.332; 3. 83H, Justin Henderson, Tea, SD (11), 16.349; 4. 8, Aaron Reutzel, Clute, TX (20), 16.491; 5. 3, Ayrton Gennetten, Gravois Mills, MO (14), 16.577; 6. 75AU, Tyler Blank, California, MO (1), 16.657; 7. 95, Matt Covington, Glenpool, OK (3), 16.658; 8. 71, Cory Eliason, Visalia, CA (39), 16.700; 9. 15H, Sam Hafertepe Jr., Sunnyvale, TX (12), 16.733; 10. 22X, Riley Goodno, Knoxville, IA (7), 16.757; 11. 18, Gio Scelzi, Fresno, CA (24), 16.767; 12. 24W, Garet Williamson, Kingdom City, MO (42), 16.774; 13. 21K, Thomas Kennedy, Winnipeg, MB, Can. (23), 16.778; 14. 88, Austin McCarl, Altoona, IA (28), 16.786; 15. 36, Jason Martin, Liberal, KS (16), 16.791; 16. 09, Matt Juhl, Tea, SD (17), 16.799; 17. 9, Chase Randall, Waco, TX (47), 16.847; 18. 53D, Jack Dover, Springfield, NE (5), 16.893; 19. 14, Corey Day, Clovis, CA (26), 16.958; 20. 20, Anthony Macri, Dillsburg, PA (8), 16.997; 21. 55T, McKenna Haase, Des Moines, IA (32), 16.998; 22. 26, Zeb Wise, Angola, IN (41), 17.010; 23. 11M, Parker Price-Miller, Kokomo, IN (50), 17.078; 24. 5A, Alex Vande Voort, Knoxville, IA (22), 17.079; 25. 45X, Kyler Johnson, Quinter, KS (4), 17.093; 26. 44, Chris Martin, Ankeny, IA (19), 17.100; 27. 91, Kyle Reinhardt, Neptune City, NJ (27), 17.102; 28. 23, Devon Dobie, Wapakoneta, OH (10), 17.130; 29. 10P, Dylan Postier, Stillwater, OK (13), 17.147; 30. 7C, Devin Kline, Knoxville, IA (25), 17.165; 31. 7M, Chance Morton, Coweta, OK (36), 17.191; 32. 70, Calvin Landis, Knoxville, IA (37), 17.203; 33. 17, Matt Allen, Adel, IA (18), 17.243; 34. 26H, Scott Bogucki, McLaren Vale, SA, Aust. (48), 17.259; 35. 13V, Seth Brahmer, Wisner, NE (21), 17.274; 36. 9G, Ryan Giles, Grimes, IA (49), 17.291; 37. 53, Joe Beaver, Knoxville, IA (38), 17.342; 38. 35, Skylar Prochaska, Lakefield, MN (51), 17.361; 39. 24N, Nathan Mills, Bondurant, IA (43), 17.423; 40. 45, Rusty Hickman, Bendigo, VIC, Aust. (29), 17.494; 41. 22W, Aaron Werner, Colman, SD (15), 17.525; 42. 2, Alex Pettas, Tempe, AZ (9), 17.537; 43. 55B, Brandon Anderson, Glenpool, OK (44), 17.570; 44. 22, Ryan Leavitt, Knoxville, IA (46), 17.842; 45. 4H, Cody Hansen, Nunda, SD (40), 17.862; 46. 19, Wes Wofford, Alamogordo, NM (30), 17.871; 47. 6C, Logan Calderwood, Goodyear, AZ (33), 17.984; 48. 9M, Ricky Montgomery, Denver, CO (31), 18.071; 49. 10, Landon Britt, Memphis, TN (35), 18.159; 50. 42, Sye Lynch, Apollo, PA (45), NT / 51. 2P, Chase Porter, St. Joseph, MO (34), NT

Heat one (started), 8 Laps, 2:18.8: 1. Gio Scelzi (4); 2. Chris Martin (1); 3. Matt Juhl (3); 4. McKenna Haase (2) / 5. Ryan Giles (8); 6. Tyler Blank (5); 7. Chance Morton (7); 8. Wes Wofford (10) / 9. Aaron Werner (9); 10. Shane Golobic (6)

Heat two (started), 8 Laps, NT: 1. Chase Randall (3); 2. Zeb Wise (2); 3. Kyle Reinhardt (1); 4. Garet Williamson (4) / 5. Matt Covington (5); 6. Joe Beaver (8); 7. Calvin Landis (7); 8. Logan Calderwood (10) / 9. Alex Pettas (9); 10. Sawyer Phillips (6)

Heat three (started), 8 Laps, 2:20.1: 1. Parker Price-Miller (2); 2. Thomas Kennedy (4); 3. Cory Eliason (5); 4. Justin Henderson (6) / 5. Skylar Prochaska (8); 6. Jack Dover (3); 7. Devon Dobie (1); 8. Brandon Anderson (7) / 9. Ricky Montgomery (9) DNS - 10. Matt Allen

Heat four (started), 8 Laps, 2:20.2: 1. Corey Day (3); 2. Aaron Reutzel (6); 3. Sam Hafertepe Jr. (5); 4. Alex Vande Voort (2) / 5. Austin McCarl (4); 6. Dylan Postier (1); 7. Scott Bogucki (7); 8. Nathan Mills (8) / 9. Ryan Leavitt (9); 10. Landon Britt (10)

Heat five (started), 8 Laps, 2:23.5: 1. Devin Kline (1); 2. Ayrton Gennetten (6); 3. Jason Martin (4); 4. Anthony Macri (3) / 5. Kyler Johnson (2); 6. Riley Goodno (5); 7. Rusty Hickman (8); 8. Sye Lynch (10) / 9. Seth Brahmer (7); 10. Cody Hansen (9)

C main (started), 8 Laps, 2:25.3: 1. Ryan Leavitt (3); 2. Seth Brahmer (2); 3. Aaron Werner (1); 4. Alex Pettas (4) / 5. Cody Hansen (6); 6. Ricky Montgomery (5) DNS - 7. Shane Golobic; 8. Sawyer Phillips; 9. Matt Allen 10. Landon Britt 11. Chase Porter 

B main (started), 12 Laps, 3:40.9: 1. Austin McCarl (4); 2. Matt Covington (2); 3. Jack Dover (5); 4. Riley Goodno (3) / 5. Skylar Prochaska (14); 6. Tyler Blank (1); 7. Chance Morton (9); 8. Devon Dobie (7); 9. Rusty Hickman (16); 10. Kyler Johnson (6); 11. Ryan Leavitt (21); 12. Dylan Postier (8); 13. Brandon Anderson (17); 14. Sye Lynch (20); 15. Seth Brahmer (22); 16. Logan Calderwood (19); 17. Aaron Werner (23); 18. Wes Wofford (18); 19. Scott Bogucki (11); 20. Alex Pettas (24); 21. Nathan Mills (15); 22. Ryan Giles (12); 23. Calvin Landis (10); 24. Joe Beaver (13) 

A main, 20 Laps, NT: 1. Sam Hafertepe Jr. (4); 2. Gio Scelzi (3); 3. Aaron Reutzel (7); 4. Garet Williamson (2); 5. Thomas Kennedy (1); 6. Ayrton Gennetten (6); 7. Chase Randall (11); 8. Matt Juhl (10); 9. Cory Eliason (5); 10. Parker Price-Miller (16); 11. Anthony Macri (13); 12. Austin McCarl (21); 13. Justin Henderson (8); 14. Zeb Wise (15); 15. Corey Day (12); 16. Jason Martin (9); 17. Riley Goodno (24); 18. Chris Martin (18); 19. Matt Covington (22); 20. Kyle Reinhardt (19); 21. Devin Kline (20); 22. McKenna Haase (14); 23. Jack Dover (23); 24. Alex Vande Voort (17). Lap Leaders: Kennedy 1-6, Hafertepe Jr. 7-20. Hard-charger: A. McCarl.

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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