SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Over the course of 100 miles, there’s ample time for a driver to make a charge to the front, even if he didn’t necessarily qualify where he wanted to.
That statement is especially true at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, host of the Bettenhausen 100 on Sept. 22.
However, starting in front of the field gives that driver a theoretical head start on those in the thick of the pack – those who are trying to meet the pace instead of setting the pace themselves.
That scenario makes it a strain on driver, crew and equipment alike. Having to be in a constant chase mode requires running a race that is not wholly dictated by yourself compared to being the front runner.
Many a USAC Silver Crown Series driver will play it conservatively, only turning up the wick in the last 30 laps or so to make it a sprint race.
Nonetheless, even at a conservative pace, tires can be used up throughout the course of 100 miles under the daylight if you’re not careful.
One year ago at the Bettenhausen 100, Chris Windom feathered the limits of aggressiveness and restraint by working his way from the 13th starting spot in the 31-car field to win on the Springfield Mile, making the winning pass with just nine laps remaining.
It marked the 10th time in the 57 runnings of the Bettenhausen that a winning driver started outside the top 10.
Kenny Irwin Jr.’s impressive charge from 28th to the win in 1995 is the furthest back any winning driver has started in the 49-year history of the USAC Silver Crown Series.
That means only one less winning driver has started outside the top 10 (10) than has a driver starting from the pole (11) in the history of the Bettenhausen 100, and a pole winner hasn’t won at Springfield since Kody Swanson in 2014.
Swanson won again in 2015 after setting fast qualifying time but was forced to start from 16th due to missing his place in the qualifying line.
It took until the sixth running of the Bettenhausen 100 before a driver won from the pole at Springfield, as Don Branson accomplished that feat in 1966.
Branson was followed by Tom Bigelow (1976), Chuck Gurney (1989-1990), Jimmy Sills (1992), Russ Gamester (1998), J.J. Yeley (2002), Dave Darland (2003), Tracy Hines (2006), A.J. Fike (2013) and Kody Swanson (2014).
Hines was untouchable in 2006, setting the still-standing track record mark of 29.305 seconds around the mile, which translates to a 122.846 mph average lap.
He proceeded to lead all 100 laps that afternoon according to the record books, notching the victory following a failed post-race technical inspection of Dave Steele’s car after Steele originally led the final 36 laps.
Is it better to start from the pole or to play the role of the chaser? It depends on the situation and the comfort level of the driver.
On the dirt, Silver Crown winners this year have started third (Tyler Courtney at the Indy Mile), third (Brady Bacon at Williams Grove) and sixth (Jacob Wilson at DuQuoin).
In fact, a driver hasn’t won from the pole on dirt since Swanson at the 2018 Hoosier Hundred.
Being on the pole is great and all with a nice clean start waiting for you without any traffic stacked in your path. But even starting from 28th doesn’t necessarily put you out of the game.
That’s what makes it entertaining, as the Springfield Mile has been resurgent in the last several years, producing unpredictability and a allotment of hard-chargers storming their way to the front to dice it up.
That unpredictability is what keeps us coming back and it’s something you can predict come Sunday afternoon.