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Kody Swanson overcomes setbacks for emotional Sumar runner-up

(Photo: Dallas Breeze)

Teary eyes mixed with smiles and hugs from family as Kody Swanson emerged from his No. 63 DePalma Motorsports machine – the pent up emotion of a difficult day overflowing after a challenging 100 laps at the Terre Haute Action Track.

He hadn’t won the Sumar Classic 100. In fact he’d finished a heartbreaking second, just 1.33 seconds behind winner Justin Grant.

But Swanson’s performance had delivered a statement that stood larger than his end result.

“If nothing else, we never give up,” Swanson told Short Track Scene. “I don’t know if I’m always good enough, but I know no one’s going to put out any more effort than this team.”

Swanson endured a challenging afternoon from the onset on a sunny Sunday in Terre Haute. The Californian suffered an engine issue during hot laps, forcing his team to change motors and miss qualifying. That trapped the defending USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series champion in the B-Main, meaning he would have to drive his way through that field just to start near the tail in the feature.

And he would so with a motor originally bought on clearance.

“I had an engine problem,” he said. “Haven’t had one in five years and had one today, it was just gonna happen.

“(The team) had an engine that they’d bought off somebody on clearance years ago that lives under the bench, just hoping we’d never need it. We did need to use it at Belleville a few years ago, and it won. But we got to qualify and everything then.”

Swanson managed to take care of business in the qualifier, rising from 12th to second in the race to secure a place in the feature. But he would have to roll off in 18th – a spot far enough back that managing tire wear became as paramount to success as passing.

Salvaging a decent day would prove to be a challenge, but Swanson and DePalma didn’t give up.

It didn’t take the 19-time winner long to rise into the contention. Swanson joined the top 10 quickly after dodging a few crashes and completing a handful of overtakes. By Lap 50 he was challenging for a spot in the top five. When Lap 70 arrived the veteran was within sight of the leaders.

Having put on a masterclass of tire management and overtaking, Swanson quickly closed the gap to leader Justin Grant and second-place Shane Cottle – a duo that had been battling for the majority of the race.

On Lap 76 an ill-timed move from Cottle allowed Swanson to slip by for second. One lap later he’d overtaken Grant for the lead.

From there the veteran shifted to tire conservation, holding the lead and trying to take care of the rubber that he’d already used to drive through the field. This allowed Grant and Cottle to stay close behind him, which ultimately led to Swanson’s undoing.

After numerous attempts at completing a pass – one which had granted him the lead for a lap, and another which had been undone by an untimely caution – Cottle began to get frustrated with Grant as the laps wound down. This led the Hoosier to make a desperate dive down into Turn 3 on Lap 84, sailing past Grant and appearing to take the spot.

But the move didn’t stick. Cottle’s No. 81 slid up the track and into Swanson’s No. 63.

Both cars went around. Swanson tried to keep his machine moving, but damage to his left-rear tire forced him to pit road.

Just eight laps after completing a 77-lap ascent through the field, Swanson was mired back in traffic once more.

“Talking to them, I know Shane (Cottle) and (Grant) were racing really hard for the lead, even before I ever got there,” Swanson said. “I tried to really take advantage and make a couple good decisions, and I got clean and away from them. With the rubber being such a factor… These tires are hard, but they may not go 100 laps in the rubber. So I was really trying to take care of it.

“Talking to (Cottle’s) spotter, it sounded like they were racing hard for position and he put a big slide on Justin – a slide for life – and apparently misjudged it and got into me really hard. I’d been running the same line, and lifting in the same spot for the 10 laps I was leading in front of them. It was very unfortunate.”

Cottle apologized to Swanson for the run-in, both at the track and on Twitter after the race.

The incident dropped Swanson to eighth with just 17 laps remaining. Getting back to a podium would be a challenge. Thoughts of a win became little more than a distant dream.

Once again, Swanson didn’t give up.

“We did it once, and I felt like we were in a really good position to take care of it,” he said. “I hate that we had to do it again, but at the end they saw the tires and gave me the green light to hustle for all it was worth.”

The ensuing green-flag run carried on to the end of the race. In that time Swanson delivered his most impressive drive of the night, passing his competitors with relative ease to rise into second with a handful of laps remaining.

“I had moved around, and we did things you shouldn’t do,” he said. “You don’t pass on the outside when the track’s rubbered down, but we got three or four of them on the outside. They’d block to protect in (Turn) 2, and we would just carry it out and make it happen.”

Grant was gone, but Swanson did all he could do to close the gap. A lead of nearly seven seconds shrunk to less than two by race’s end.

Swanson’s quest for victory ultimately fell just short, but his team’s resilience and strength had been placed firmly on display. Afterward the 30-year-old tried to digest what had been one of the most trying days of his Silver Crown career.

“It was a roller coaster, right? But you can’t ever get up,” he said. “That’s what I tell everybody I love about Silver Crown. You’re never out. You just keep digging. Man, if we could have caught a caution in the last few (laps), I think we would have had a shot again.”

“I hated the way last year ended. I tore up a race car that had been good to us for four or five years. The guys built a new one, and we hadn’t had it out on the track until today. We went on the track and were quickest in the first four laps of hot laps. We came out of the gate ready to show them that we were still a contender.”

In the end a day that started with promise for Swanson had seen more hurdles than he ever could have anticipated. But while the middle stages were a challenge, the event ultimately ended with cause for optimism.

Swanson’s second-place finish left him in a tie with Justin Grant for the Silver Crown championship lead with 137 points.

Perhaps more important, Swanson and DePalma left Terre Haute knowing one thing with certainty – no matter the challenge or heartbreak, the group’s effort never wavered.

“These guys never give up,” Swanson said. “I’m never gonna quit on them.

“For all we’ve been through… Almost.”

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Aaron Bearden is a contributing writer for Short Track Scene. Having grown up watching NASCAR and IndyCar, Bearden began following short track racing during his high school years before starting a blog about racing in college. A writer for Frontstretch and Motorsports Tribune, Bearden also covers NASCAR, IndyCar and other forms of open wheel racing.

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