By Richie Murray
Springfield, Illinois………Justin Grant was fully aware of the situation at hand on the final restart of Saturday’s “Bettenhausen 100” at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
The Ione, California native had the nose of the white No. 63 driven by the two-time USAC Silver Crown champ and winner of the last two “Bettenhausen 100” races right on his tail for the final 25 laps after Swanson had put on one of his patented late-race clinics down the stretch.
Intimidation was not in Grant’s vocabulary on this day as he was able to stave off Swanson’s charges in the final laps, including a green-white-checkered finish to capture his first career USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series presented by TRAXXAS victory in his Carli-Hemelgarn Racing/Carli Motorsports – Hemelgarn Enterprises/DRC/Speedway Ford. In the process, he became the first driver to get his first series win at the Springfield Mile since fellow Californian Cole Whitt in 2009.
“With Kody behind you, you want to start running the thing harder because you know he’s so good,” Grant explained. “At the same time, that’s what he’s so good at. He gets you to run your car harder, miss your marks and burn your stuff up. I just knew we had to keep doing what we were doing without making a mistake. I couldn’t leave anything out there. I had to run it hard, but I still had to hit my marks. The guys on the radio were telling me to just keep doing what I was doing and I’d be fine.”
Grant began his race from the outside of the front row, using a big run on the outside to snare the lead from ProSource pole winner Jerry Coons, Jr. on the opening lap heading into turn one, instantly building a four-car-length lead by the time the field hit the back straight.
Meanwhile, three-time “Bettenhausen 100” winner Brian Tyler had clicked his way from 10th to 5th by the opening lap. Notorious for his steadfast movement through the field throughout his career, Tyler’s three Springfield wins had come from starting positions of 21st, 16th and 14th!
On the lap 20 restart, third-running Chris Windom’s car didn’t get up to speed when the green flag fell. As the rest of the field scrambled to avoid him, Keith Burch, making his Silver Crown debut, made hard contact with the outside turn one wall. He was able to climb out of the car under his own power, but was done for the day.
By lap 36, Tyler had climbed to second and sized up Grant to make his move for the lead to the outside entering turn three where he took charge and instantly pulled away to a 10-car-length advantage.
Grant had settled into his groove in second and used the strategy of following Tyler instead of engaging in a cat and mouse game that could wear out his tires. Even though that was the plan and he was going to stick to it, Grant admits his relative lack of experience in Silver Crown compared to Tyler (most starts in series history at 192) didn’t give him complete confidence until he saw the condition of the right rear rubber on Tyler’s car past the halfway mark.
“I haven’t done this long enough to say there’s no question that I’d get back by him,” Grant said. “That was the thought. It’s a long race and my crew said Tyler was running pretty hard to get by us. We just had to let him do his thing. From my view, it looked like his tire was flapping around like it was blistered. That made me a little more confident and I knew I just had to keep the thing straight and not try to catch him. I just needed to run behind him and let him use his stuff up.”
Opportunities to gain positions are abundant on restarts, and on the lap 57 edition, a scramble assumed in the middle of the pack, sending Zach Daum helicoptering down the front straightaway upside down before coming to a rest up against the turn one wall. He would walk away from the frightening accident unscathed.
Under the open red flag, several teams made adjustments to their cars, but not Grant’s crew. However, it gave the team a chance to inspect their car, mainly the tires, where they determined that changes were unnecessary. They liked what they saw and had full intentions to ride it out to the finish.
“We didn’t make any changes during the red. We just left it alone,” Grant said. “It was nice for confidence because our guys got to look at the tires and saw we had a ton of tire left. Starting up front sure helps that a lot because you don’t have to race your way through. You can go into conservation mode earlier and keep the tires under it. The plan for the last 44 laps was to keep conserving. At around 40 laps, it’s basically a sprint car race – a long, abrasive sprint car race.”
On the lap 57 restart (part deux), it was déjà vu for Grant who mimicked the same move used on the original start to blast around the outside of Tyler to take the lead. Lurking in the shadows, though, was Swanson after methodically picking his way from ninth.
Swanson peered around the outside of Coons for third entering turn one on lap 69. A lap later, he used a run down the front straight, swapping to the inside of Coons to beat him to the inner rail for the position in turn one with 30 to go. Five laps later, Tyler was within Swanson’s range. Swanson pulled the trigger and fired off around the outside of the two-time USAC National Sprint Car champ in turn one for second with only a quarter of the race remaining.
From there, Swanson gnashed the loudpedal with his right foot, erasing three-tenths of a second per lap as he put the chase on Grant for the lead. By lap 80, though, Grant gapped Swanson slightly, rebuilding his lead to just a tick over a second with just 20 laps remaining, almost as if it were by design.
“Once we get inside 20 to go, that’s when we turn it loose,” Grant explained. “That’s about the same time Swanson started to turn his loose too. Once we get inside 10 to go, you got to hustle it for all she’s worth.”
With 17 laps to go, third-running Tyler’s magnificent run came to an end as he slowed to a stop on the high side of turn four to bring out the yellow, ending his bid for a fourth “Bettenhausen” win. He finished 21st.
On the restart with 14 laps to go, it became a two-horse race as the two jockeys – Grant and Swanson – separated themselves from the rest of the pack by a half-straightaway. Grant maintained a three to four-car length lead over Swanson when Leary’s day came to end while running fourth, slowing to a stop at the entrance of turn one, thus necessitating a yellow. That set up a green-white-checkered finish, providing Swanson one last shot at Grant.
“You have to use the racetrack to make your car better if you’re going to try to win,” Swanson said. “I found something with the racetrack to try to help put us up there. I felt like we gained on him a lot in those two laps before the caution from where I had been. When the caution came out, I thought, if I do it right, I have a chance. I can’t say I thought I was going to win. The best I could hope for was a chance. These restarts in Silver Crown are tough. If you’re struggling taking off, you’re a sitting duck. That’s something that’s been tough for us at times.”
And, that’s exactly what happened. When the green flag fell, Grant scooted away while Swanson’s car didn’t get up to speed right away. That gave fourth-running Jeff Swindell exactly what he needed and he jumped at the chance, roaring to the outside of both Swanson and Coons to move from fourth to second. Swanson maintained his composure and used a drive on the bottom of turn two to get back by Swindell for the runner-up spot.
However, Grant was too far gone at that point as he flashed out front to an eight-car-length lead where he’d finish off his masterful drive to win by just under seven tenths of a second over Swanson, Swindell, Coons and Dave Darland.
After an arduous season that began with high expectations, Grant’s team has been plagued with a myriad of issues that produced zero top-five finishes in seven series starts this season. It’s enough to shake one’s confidence, but the effort and the speed were there. Lady luck just needed to fall on their side.
“For a while, I thought this win was coming,” Grant believed. “Then, I started wondering if I was ever going to win one. This year has been tough. We’ve had a lot of gremlins through nobody’s fault. I’ve made some mistakes and we’ve just had some weird things going on with the car, just stuff that you wouldn’t expect to go wrong. We had speed all year. It just felt like everything was working against us. To finally get a win for (car owners) Chris Carli and Ron Hemelgarn means a lot. Those guys have put a lot of effort and money into this deal and it feels great to get them one.”
After two-straight “Bettenhausen 100” wins in 2014 and 2015, Kingsburg, California’s Swanson had to settle for second in his DePalma Motorsports/Radio Hospital – Hampshire Racing Engines/Maxim/Hampshire Chevy. With that said, it was a hard-fought, honorable effort. It was a day that began with one issue after another on the car, but the team stuck with it and, as they do more often than not, they ended up in a position to win at the end of a 100-mile race.
“The only thing I could do is drive in harder and make sure Justin had to earn it,” Swanson said. “I couldn’t roll the center or get off the corner as good as he could. I pressured him to make a mistake and he didn’t. He earned it today.”
“I knew early our only chance to win was if we could save better than everyone,” Swanson explains. “A lot of good cars were starting in front of us. We had issues in practice and qualifying. Afterward, we changed the steering gear and the pump hoping to help it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t it. But, that’s why I love these 100-mile races. It gives you time to figure it out. I was trying to save my tires as best as I could and when it came time to go, we had to make some pretty bold moves to get up through there. We did everything we could to put us in a position to win. We don’t quit. That’s what makes us strong in these long races.
Swanson makes due with what he has and what he has is a great combination that has worked highly-successfully over the past four years and, this year, has allowed him to extend his series point lead to 96 heading into the “Ted Horn 100” at the Du Quoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds on Sept. 3.
“A lot of guys will have cockpit adjustable shocks, weight jackers and all of that,” Swanson begins. “Of all the races I’ve driven the No. 63 dirt car, all I’ve had is a brake, a throttle and a steering wheel. You drive it, you use the racetrack and figure it out. The track will change. Maybe the rubber will lay a little differently. Maybe you use the brake a little differently. Maybe you do something with your steering and your timing with how you use the pedals to make the car work for you. They set it up and I drive it to try to get the most I can out of it. Sometimes you have to drive smarter than those guys to put yourself in a position to win. Sometimes you just want it more. You just drive it into the corner harder than the other guy. We made up a lot of ground that way today.”
“I feel like racing’s a relay,” Swanson continued. “It’s a team sport. Everyone on the crew does a great job, but then the baton is handed to the driver last. When the green drops, it’s up to me to figure it out, good bad or indifferent. Whether it’s minimizing mistakes or trying to make something happen, it’s your job to go out there and give everything you have to win for your team. today. Today, we just came up one short.”
Another Swanson who had a solid day is car owner Mark Swanson whose driver, Jeff Swindell of Germantown, Tennessee, drove to his second-straight podium finish with the Silver Crown Series after finishing runner-up at Du Quoin in September of 2016 in his Swanson Racing/Jet Star – Rosewood Machine & Tool – Jeff Freel/Maxim/Toyota. Swindell, the longtime, versatile racing veteran, has Indiana State Fairgrounds and Du Quoin State Fairgrounds victories on his great resume, but will have to wait another year to pick up a first Springfield victory following an incredible charge from 28th to 3rd to pick up KSE Racing Products Hard Charger honors for the afternoon. Swindell explains the process of running a successful 100-lap on a dirt mile.
“Here at Springfield, it’s really a tire burner,” Swindell said. “You have to pace yourself for the first half of the thing and just put yourself in a position to take a spot when somebody messes up in front of you. You try to get a feel on the starts before falling into line and waiting on somebody to give you the spot. You don’t want to press it too much. When you see a hole open, you got to jump in it. You just don’t want to lean on the power too much because you have to make it last. I kind of overdid it and that made the tire worse than what I wanted it to be at the end. It went down on us a little bit. I think it had a little hole in it, which had some effect on it.
“On the restarts, the little Toyota took off pretty good,” Swindell credits. “It stutters for about 30 feet, then it cleans up and really drives on. We passed cars on the restarts all day. I really didn’t think we’d be able to do that once we got into fourth. I thought all those guys would take off on me. That thing jumped up and took off every time. I thought we were going to have a shot at them on the last laps. I ran up close to him going into three, made up a little ground and figured what the hell, I jumped into a podium. I can give it away or try going for the win. I drove it in a little too hard, but it was a good comeback from 28th to 3rd.”
Contingency awards Saturday at the Illinois State Fairgrounds included Jerry Coons, Jr. (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Jeff Swindell (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and David Shain (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMP CAR SERIES (presented by TRAXXAS) RACE RESULTS: August 19, 2017 – Springfield, Illinois – Illinois State Fairgrounds – “Bettenhausen 100”
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Jerry Coons Jr., 20, Nolen-29.988; 2. Justin Grant, 91, Carli/Hemelgarn-30.220; 3. J.C. Bland, 5, BBE-30.375; 4. Keith Burch, 24, Burch-30.464; 5. Chris Windom, 92, Kazmark-30.501; 6. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-30.539; 7. Dakota Jackson, 201, Nolen-30.540; 8. Joey Moughan, 29, Moughan-30.542; 9. David Shain, 7, Hardy-30.619; 10. Tyler Courtney, 97, Lein-30.704; 11. Kody Swanson, 63, DePalma-30.706; 12. Brian Tyler, 12, Galas-30.789; 13. Aaron Pierce, 26, Pierce-30.824; 14. Dave Darland, 27, Phillips-30.846; 15. Shane Cottle, 81, Williams-30.849; 16. Steve Buckwalter, 53, SET-30.911; 17. Zach Daum, 14, McQuinn-30.975; 18. Damion Gardner, 6, Klatt-31.004; 19. Patrick Bruns, 95, Full Throttle-31.010; 20. Casey Shuman, 55, Bateman-31.064; 21. Terry Babb, 42, Babb-31.141; 22. Russ Gamester, 51, Gamester-31.148; 23. Joss Moffatt, 32, Williams & Wright-31.311; 24. Patrick Lawson, 2, Lawson-31.489; 25. Korey Weyant, 99, Weyant-31.503; 26. Matt Goodnight, 39, Goodnight-31.530; 27. Chris Urish, 77, Urish-31.575; 28. Jeff Swindell, 21, Swanson-31.771; 29. Joe Liguori, 4, Liguori-31.852; 30. Danny Long, 44, Long-31.976; 31. Jacob Wilson, 07, WBR-31.991; 32. Chris Fetter, 88, Fetter-32.659; 33. David Byrne, 40, Byrne-33.510; 34. Hunter Schuerenberg, 120, Nolen-NT; 35. Kenny Gentry, 18, Gentry-NT; 36. Dave Berkheimer, 31, Berkheimer-NT; 37. Brady Bacon, 48, Martens-NT; 38. Shane Cockrum, 71, Hardy-NT; 39. A.J. Fike, 3, RFMS-NT; 40. Austin Nemire, 16, Lesko-NT.
FEATURE: (100 laps) 1. Justin Grant, 2. Kody Swanson, 3. Jeff Swindell, 4. Jerry Coons Jr., 5. Dave Darland, 6. Shane Cottle, 7. Aaron Pierce, 8. David Byrne, 9. Joe Liguori, 10. Steve Buckwalter, 11. Jacob Wilson, 12. Patrick Lawson, 13. David Shain, 14. Matt Goodnight, 15. Joss Moffatt, 16. Chris Fetter, 17. Damion Gardner, 18. Chris Urish, 19. C.J. Leary, 20. Tyler Courtney, 21. Brian Tyler, 22. Korey Weyant, 23. Casey Shuman, 24. J.C. Bland, 25. Chris Windom, 26. Zach Daum, 27. Austin Nemire, 28. Joey Moughan, 29. Keith Burch, 30. Dakota Jackson, 31. Terry Babb, 32. Patrick Bruns, 33. Russ Gamester, 34. Danny Long. NT
**Daum flipped on lap 57 of the feature.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-35 Grant, Laps 36-56 Tyler, Laps 57-100 Grant.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER AWARD: Jeff Swindell (28th to 3rd)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: David Shain
NEW USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP (presented by TRAXXAS) POINTS: 1-K.Swanson-554, 2-Coons-458, 3-Windom-439, 4-Byrne-372, 5-Grant-360, 6-Bobby Santos-350, 7-Pierce-349, 8-Liguori-258, 9-Gardner-248, 10-Moffatt-242.
NEXT USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMP CAR RACE (presented by TRAXXAS): September 3 – Du Quoin, IL – Du Quoin State Fairgrounds – “Ted Horn 100”