Fifty points separate Brad Sweet from David Gravel as they ready themselves for three more battles to determine the 2023 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series championship.
Should Gravel fail to overtake Sweet, he will know precisely where the championship was lost. If Sweet wins, he will have a pretty good idea of when and where that happened.
Gravel and Sweet face off for the championship for the third consecutive year. Sweet won both previous titles and is in a strong position to win again, which will be the fifth consecutive time that he bested the field. It won't be the first time a driver has shown this level of dominance. Steve Kinser won six straight titles from 1983 through 1988 and five from 1990 through 1994. Much more recently, Donny Schatz won five titles from 2014 through 2018 at which point Sweet took over.
But one of the factors that makes this championship so compelling is how Sweet's and Gravel's careers have paralleled one another.
Gravel won Rookie of the Year honors in 2013; Sweet followed in 2014. Along the way, Sweet has amassed 89 career wins; Gravel has 87. Sweet holds the advantage in podium finishes with 286 to 225 but Gravel has more Quick Time runs at 110 to 75.
“David’s a great racer and has a lot of experience as do I now," Sweet said in a press release. "He has his strong suits as do I. We’re just pretty evenly matched.
"A lot of it comes down to just a few little things throughout a season that kind of separates us. I feel like he’s really stepped his program up, and they’ve definitely kept us on our toes. It’s been fun competing. I love the competition. I love that we’re pushing each other to be better."
Three of those "little things" were DNFs for Gravel at U.S. Raceway, Tri-State Speedway and Jackson Motorplex.
Still, Gravel's 10 wins entering Devil's Bowl Speedway last week kept him in the hunt. Gravel held the advantage in podiums with 33 to Sweet's 29, but with Sweet finishing all 67 races, he was in the driver's seat when the series hit the track late Saturday night for the final race on the track that first hosted a World of Outlaws Sprint car race.
"Our win totals are close," Gravel said. "We used to run third and fourth in points it seemed like every year. It was Daryn (Pittman) and Donny (Schatz) up front. Then, we kind of took the jump to get ahead of Daryn and run second and third every year for a while.
"Now, Brad’s been able to win the last several championships. I feel like we’re both at the top of our games. We’re just a half a step behind in points. But as far as wins and big wins, we’re right there."
Please Help Me
The Outlaws points structure is such that Sweet can clinch the championship with results of seventh or better in the remaining races. Notably, that was the same metric entering Devil's Bowl before Sweet's crash and it was only through an effort by the team that could reasonably be called heroic that Sweet held serve.
Gravel would need help to overtake Sweet.
He almost got it when Sweet made contact with Kasey Kahne early in Saturday's feature and flipped in front of almost the entire field. At first glance, it appeared impossible that his mangled car could be repaired. It took several minutes to turn the car over before it was dragged into the pits.
Members of Sweet's and Kahne's team stripped off broken parts and laid out ones that were just as strong.
An Open Red session and extended caution to clear the remaining carnage from the multi-car crash allowed the team to make those repairs and with a little more than 30 seconds remaining before the call to the line. Sweet finished seventh.
"It’s not been our best season we’ve ever had, but it’s certainly not been our worst," Sweet said. "I think every Outlaw tour has its peaks and valleys. Really, what defines a season, I think, is how you get through the adversity.
"I’ve said that for a lot of years. Typically, when you’re running good, things are easy. It’s when you have to go through hard nights or hard stretches and wrecks and things like that, that’s what’s going to win or lose you a championship."
Now Sweet and Gravel turn their attention to the final three races of the season, which will occur on the 0.4-mile Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway November 2-4.
Gravel is strong on this track with five of his 87 wins coming there. But Sweet's magic number remains seven and he swept the top five at this track last year and finished worse than seventh only twice in the last nine events. Both of those races were still good enough to be in the top 10.
"We’re continuing to fight," Gravel said. "We’ve had a great stretch here the last month or so. We’re going to keep putting our head down and control what we can control. It would be very satisfying to beat him, but he still hasn’t had a DNF this year and we have three.
"I feel like when you’ve got a guy that’s as consistent and there every night, it’s hard to make that up. We’re going to try to win three races at Charlotte, and wherever we end up is where we end up."
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