Oregon, WI -- There was a moment captured during practice of Friday's Bytec "Dairyland 100" that perfectly encapsulated the character of Kody Swanson and his will to do what it takes to win.
With his helmet still strapped on, the four-time USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series titlist quickly exited his parked car in the infield and immediately brought out the tape measure to the stagger on his right rear.
A small gesture in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps to some, but not in the mind of Kody Swanson who is focused on going the extra meticulous mile to discover the finer details of what it takes to earn all the accolades he has throughout his Silver Crown career.
Swanson led the first 12 laps from the pole position, and then fell back to third where he'd run for the first half of the 100-lapper as David Byrne, then Kyle Hamilton took turns at the front. Swanson wasn't sure a win on this day was in the cards. However, the Kingsburg, Calif. native kept grinding and working until he put himself in a position to pounce.
"Earlier, I didn't know if I'd have anything for Kyle and David," Swanson admitted. "Not only were they faster than me, they were able to do it with ease. That's a disheartening feeling, but I love that they're 100 laps. The track changes and your car changes. I just stayed with it and kept moving around. I like what dirt teaches you, that you need to move around and follow the racetrack so that you're prepared for a position like that when you're in traffic."
At midway, though, the complexion of the race was altered on a variety of levels. On the 51st lap, fourth-running Justin Grant's car went up in smoke, dumping liquid and turning the surface in turn three into a skating ring, sending sixth-place Derek Bischak and eighth-place Travis Welpott sliding uncontrollably at the entrance of turn three. Welpott took the brunt of the impact, slamming the left side of his ride into the concrete, mangling his chassis. He walked away from the incident.
After the unplanned mid-race break, Swanson knew he had been able to preserve his equipment in the first half. The timing was now right to make a run, he felt.
"One of the biggest factors here is when you're on the brakes," Swanson explained. "No matter how fast you are, if you run out, you're sunk. I felt like once we got in the second half, it was okay to try what I could to keep pace. I felt like the longer it went, the better we got."
On lap 57, the timing was just right to set the first domino into motion. The top-three of Hamilton, Byrne and Swanson ran nearly nose-to-tail. Swanson hustled and forced Byrne into pressuring Hamilton, which opened the door on the bottom at the exit of turn four, where Swanson pulled even with Byrne near the end of the front straightaway before Byrne shut the door, albeit momentarily.
Byrne couldn't quite hold the bottom line, drifted up off turn two, which allowed Swanson to stay the course underneath to drive away with the second spot on the back straight with Hamilton now the only contender left in his sight as the pair began to encounter major lapped traffic.
"When catching lapped cars, you never know what can happen at the end, or anytime," Swanson reiterated. "You never know when you might be in a position to win one or not. With 12 to go at Williams Grove (two weeks ago), I thought I had a shot, but I made a mistake. We were battling issues. We all are. That's what I love about Silver Crown. Nobody gets a perfect game. You've got to figure it out, but I didn't. I missed it."
Like an elephant's memory, Swanson didn't forget. It simply empowered him not to reenact that particular moment. He recalled that, in traffic, sometimes you have to be smart and follow versus risking your race and the competition's race by putting yourself in a bad spot.
On the 77th lap, Swanson was amidst this very situation heading down the back straight, but was sort of in the bystander role, waiting to see what Hamilton does and counter that move. Hamilton chose the high route and got clogged in by a group of three lapped cars at the exit of turn four. Hamilton was stuck, but Swanson had an open space on the bottom to stick his nose in and forge forward with the lead.
"I love when you catch them in a group like that...in second place," Swanson clarified. "It's a huge advantage there. It's your job to take care of it. When you're trying to decide whether to go high or low, you pretty much get to pick the lane he doesn't. I was hoping he'd pick high personally just because the way I felt my car was rolling the bottom really well. I was able to make a move and get alongside and, from there, you have to capitalize on things like that. He's good enough, if he gets back out front, there may not be enough time left to get another opportunity.
Yet, Swanson was more than eager to put this one on ice, where he opened up a near four second lead by the closing laps. That is, until Austin Nemire slipped sideways to a stop in turn four as Swanson was eying the checkered flag, necessitating a green-white-checkered finish.
"Here, we were within coasting distance of making it happen, but they say, 'no dice,'" Swanson recalled. "On the radio, I was just quiet. What a bummer it really was, but I had to get focused and it's like 'hey you got to let it go.' It is what it is. It's our job to do the best two laps we can and finish this thing."
Swanson had no trouble on the final two lap sprint, opening up a 1.678 gap at the finish to score his 27th career series win, which is in a stratosphere all his own just one year following his Madison victory that tied him for the all-time win record. Hamilton hung on for second despite getting clipped in turn three by Byrne in a battle for the runner-up spot. Hamilton maintained the grip and hung on for second over Byrne, Bobby Santos and Eric Gordon.
It was a change of scenery for Swanson and the Nolen Racing team following their last pavement outing at Lucas Oil Raceway in May where they led for 53 laps before an engine let go on them while leading. Swanson credits the turnaround to the countless hours and sacrifices he and his team made to make sure everything was in order to give them a shot at winning, which they've been doing so much of in 2019 with three wins in six races already after the famed, yellow Nolen Racing No. 20 hadn't been victorious in the decade prior to this year.
"We've been putting in a lot of hours," Swanson explained. Not only my family and I, but a lot of guys that are part of this race team. Dale Latty and Rick Laughlin met my wife and I at the shop at 7am Wednesday so we could go to Salem (Ind.) Speedway to shake it down and make sure we had all the bugs worked out, but we weren't sure. We came home, started at 7am and worked until 11 at night, and never gave up."
"Yesterday, we did all our homework to make sure I was ready to deal whatever handling challenges were thrown at us," Swanson continued. "It was a completely different racetrack to me than we had a year ago. We made changes all the way through driver introductions on the front stretch. I wasn't sure if we had done it right, or if I had made the right calls, but the longer it went, we stayed in the hunt. You never know what's going to happen in the end. Luckily for us, persistence kept us in it and gave us a chance."
Contingency award winners Friday night at Madison International Speedway included Kody Swanson (Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifier), Kyle Robbins (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Mike Haggenbottom (WIlwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
FEATURE: (100 laps, starting position in parentheses) 1. Kody Swanson (1), 2. Kyle Hamilton (3), 3. David Byrne (2), 4. Bobby Santos (5), 5. Eric Gordon (10), 6. Jim Anderson (11), 7. Cody Gallogly (8), 8. Derek Bischak (6), 9. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (13), 10. Russ Gamester (14), 11. Toni Breidinger (15), 12. Kyle Robbins (20), 13. Mike Haggenbottom (17), 14. Chris Windom (12), 15. Cody Gerhardt (18), 16. Austin Nemire (9), 17. Justin Grant (4), 18. Travis Welpott (7), 19. Patrick Lawson (21), 20. Matt Goodnight (16), 21. Chris Dyson (19). NT
-USAC Press Release
-Photo credit: Rich Forman