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Kody Swanson caps off dominant week with Little 500 win

Aaron Bearden | STS

Kody Swanson’s a firm believer in never giving up.

The Californian put that ideal on full display at Anderson Speedway.

Swanson overcame a Lap 411 spin and made up two laps in the final 80 circuits to claim Saturday’s Payless Little 500.

“If I have a theory in racing, it’s that you can’t give up,” Swanson told Short Track Scene. “We were in about as deep a hole as you can be in, and we didn’t give up. The team didn’t quit on me, and I’m sure not going to quit on them. I’m not sure how, but we’re here talking in victory lane.”

The run capped off a week that had already seen Swanson sweep the two USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series races – the Hoosier Hundred and Carb Night Classic.

“You take each one individually, and you think you’ve got a shot at them all,” Swanson said. “Which is crazy to think, because they’re the biggest races of their discipline for the year, and we run them three nights in a row.

“How incredible to have it come together – to run with DePalma (Motorsports) in Silver Crown, racing against the Nolen (Racing) team, then to give Gene Nolen his first Little 500 win. To tie Al Unser with my fourth Hoosier Hundred in a row, to hold off my kid brother (Tanner Swanson) who is probably the best there is at (Lucas Oil Raceway). It’s just incredible.”

Swanson’s third victory in as many days may have been his most improbable.

The 2016 Little 500 winner entered the 70th running with a car capable of winning and ran third through the race’s early stages, but the traditional myriad strategies and high attrition rate kept Swanson from any guaranteed success.

Davey Hamilton Jr. led the field to green after claiming the pole earlier in the week, but it was Daleville, Indiana native Aaron Pierce that paced the field for the majority of the race’s first 250 laps.

Piloting his traditional No. 26 pavement sprint car, Pierce set a blistering early pace, trapping more than half of the field a lap down after the opening 150 laps. The veteran led the way until a caution flew for a stalled Kyle O’Gara on Lap 236.

In need of fresh tires and still required to make a stop prior to Lap 251, Pierce led the lead pack to pit road on the ensuing yellow. But when he made it to his stall, a mechanical issue caused his machine to overheat. The issue led to a lengthy pit stop, trapping Pierce numerous laps down and effectively ending his race.

That pit cycle gave the lead to Shane Hollingsworth, who found himself on an alternate strategy. The Indianapolis native would hold the lead until another caution flew on Lap 300. His trip to pit road on the ensuing yellow gave the lead to Swanson for the first time of the night, setting up runs that would determine the outcome of the race.

The green flag run that followed the Lap 300 crash proved to be the longest of the night, stretching from lap 310 through Swanson’s spin on Lap 411.

Swanson started the run with a one-lap advantage on second-place Jacob Wilson and Hollingsworth, but he was on older tires and faded over the course of the run. Wilson took the lead from Swanson on Lap 382, and by Lap 400 Swanson was nearly a half a lap behind the two-time Little 500 winner and in dire need of a caution.

In previous years drivers that have needed a yellow have aided their cause with a well-timed bump. But Swanson refused to create his opportunity with contact.

“A big part of this race for a lot of years has been guys willing to use the front bumper when they need a caution, and I can’t,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I didn’t touch a single person all night, and that’s probably what I’m the most proud of. Last year i had my rear bumper wore out be people that were so impatient.”

Instead Swanson tried to hold on and wait for the caution to fly. That led to him being the cause of the yellow on Lap 411, spinning out in Turn 2 after locking his brakes up.  At the time it appeared to be the end of Swanson’s race, but it instead set him up for a furious charge to the front.

“I was loose for 100 laps, and finally got in too hot,” he said. “I thought I was going to lose it, and at that point the only option I had left as to stay in the throttle and keep it going to try to salvage something, and it stalled.

“At that point I thought it was over. I just tried to salvage the moment and keep it going. Despite the poor job I did for this team, they gave me a great second pit stop.”

Wilson and Swanson both pitted under the yellow, giving the lead to Hollingsworth. Wilson followed a lap down in second, with Swanson two laps back in third after his spin.

The ensuing green-flag run was a short one, but it benefitted Swanson greatly. He quickly overtook Hollingsworth to get his first lap back on 430, and a spin from Ken Schrader moments later allowed Swanson to rejoin the tail end of the field with only a lap separating him from the race lead.

When the green flag flew again on Lap 439, it did so for the final time. Wilson and Swanson each worked their way around Hollingsworth to rejoin the lead lap, and over a 40-lap stretch they battled for what would ultimately become the race win in lapped traffic as they reeled in Hollingsworth’s slow No. 20.

Swanson had the quicker car, but Wilson had the track position. The duo dueled through lapped traffic, making daring moves as they raced for what they knew could be the victory.

“At that point it’s 50 to go, and it’s possible,” Swanson said. “I feel like it’s my job to deliver and figure it out, whatever it is. I wasn’t going to use the bumper to do it, so I worked him high and low, caught traffic and made a move to get to the inside of him .We hit another lapped car, and I kind of did a pick and roll and made it through the next turn to get through.

“I knew we were both catching Shane (Hollingsworth), and I knew if Jacob got to Shane before me and got the lead that there might be no denying a guy that good behind the wheel.”

Wilson held the position for numerous laps, but finally surrendered the spot in lapped traffic with 31 laps remaining.

“He got me on a lapper,” Wilson said. “That’s just racing sometimes. He made the right move, I made the wrong one at the wrong time, and after that it was all she wrote.”

From there Swanson took off. He made his way around Hollingsworth for the lead with little resistance on Lap 478 and cruised to his second Little 500 win. Wilson followed in second, with Hollingsworth limping his machine home on old tires in third.

Mickey Kempens and Scott Hampton rounded out the top five, with Chris Windom, Brian Gerster, Caleb Armstrong, Ken Schrader and Shane Cottle completing the top 10.

The win was the first for owner Gene Nolen in the Little 500, a mark Swanson was proud of given the faith Nolen had shown in him when he lost his Little 500 ride in 2017.

“(In 2016) I got Richard Hoffman, a famed car owner here, his first Little 500 win,” he said. “It was so special, and I thought I might not ever be able to top that one.

“The next year I thought maybe I could try it again, and I lost my ride in the Hoffman car,” he continued. “No hard feelings, and I appreciate the guys and what they did for me for sure, but Tony Stewart was a big name that filled the seat in the No. 69, and Gene Nolen was willing to give me a shot.

“At that point it became my goal to give (Nolan) his first Little 500. Last year I think we had a shot and just didn’t catch the right break. I don’t know how many breaks we had to catch tonight to battle back from that, but we did it.”

Results

  1. Kody Swanson
  2. Jacob Wilson
  3. Shane Hollingsworth
  4. Mickey Kempgens
  5. Scott Hampton
  6. Chris Windom
  7. Brian Gerster
  8. Caleb Armstrong
  9. Ken Schrader
  10. Shane Cottle
  11. Troy DeCaire
  12. Travis Welpott
  13. CJ Leary
  14. Garrett Green
  15. Tyler Roahrig
  16. Aaron Pierce
  17. JoJo Helberg
  18. Bobby Santos III
  19. Isaac Chappel
  20. Shane Butler
  21. Ryan Litt
  22. Davey Hamilton Jr.
  23. Chris Neuenschwander
  24. Kyle O’Gara
  25. Eric Gordon
  26. Johnny Gilbertson
  27. Kevin Thomas Jr.
  28. Jerry Coons Jr.
  29. John Inman
  30. Tanner Swanson
  31. Jimmy McCune
  32. Tony Main
  33. Brian Tyler

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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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