By RICHIE MURRAY
SPEEDWAY, IN – Last year was one of the most challenging seasons of Justin Grant’s racing career. A year that began with high hopes for he and TOPP Motorsports early on in the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car season was hindered by mounting frustration and a lack of wins.
“We started out with pretty high hopes,” Grant recalled. “Sunshine (Tyler Courtney) had stepped out of the car and had been winning races. I had stepped away from the McGhee car and we were winning races as well. I figured once we got together, we’d come out swinging, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
But like any good redemption story, this story doesn’t end short of the finish line. Justin and TOPP knew they were fast, but the results just didn’t show that. Team owner Kevin Birchmeier stood by crew chief Mark Shambarger and Grant with the feeling that victories were going to come. Everything just had to jell.
“When things finally turned around, they really turned around,” Grant exclaimed. “We won a lot of races in a short amount of time.”
And boy did they ever!
Throughout the season, the team spent time in the shop, going through a bunch of little things they found here and there, making this and that a little better, just kicking away at things in an effort to get back on the road of success.
Though they appeared to have turned the corner during the second half of the season in terms of speed, a spell of engine troubles arrived, creating yet another hurdle to overcome, but things were close, and they knew it.
Grant set quick time and won his heat during September’s “4-Crown Nationals” at Eldora Speedway, and was running second and closing on race leader Courtney with the prevailing thought that this could be their breakthrough night. However, all those hopes and dreams ended in shambles against the turn two concrete with four laps remaining following what Grant described as a driver error.
Despite the setback, all hope was not lost. Grant and the team rolled into the “Sprint Car Smackdown” finale at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway just five days later with a sense of growing confidence.
“We left Eldora with a feeling that we could win these races,” Grant said. “We’ve got the car, we’ve got the package and we’re fast.”
Grant proceeded to win the “King of the Hill” duel, which garnered him a starting position from the pole for the $10,000-to-win 40-lapper.
“We can win this thing,” Grant remembered thinking. “We felt like we had the best car there, which we hadn’t felt all season with the exception of Eldora the week before.”
Grant proceeded to lead all 40 laps in dominating fashion. The confidence part that had weighed on Grant and the team’s minds all season was now gone. Now it was time to go do just what they set out to do without any inhibitions.
“Part of it was getting that weight off our shoulders,” Grant admitted. “Then it’s just about going out and doing our job. I don’t have to prove anything. Now that we’ve done it, let’s keep doing our job. We just caught a lot of momentum there. We’d spent all season to that point getting kicked around and not running very good; once we did get rolling, we were pretty hungry.”
Grant closed out that weekend with another $10-Grand win in the “Fall Nationals” at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, then traveled westward to capture the opening night of the “Western World Championships” at Arizona Speedway, then recorded two more on the first two nights of the “Oval Nationals” at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway.
Ultimately, Grant would win five races in a seven-race stretch – the most successful run of any driver during a seven-race span in the series for 2018.
Ending on a strong note brings newborn confidence for Grant and TOPP coming into 2019 as they intend to pick up where they left off at the Feb. 14-15-16 “Winter Dirt Games X” at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., the site of Grant’s season-opening victory in 2017.
“I’m really optimistic coming into Florida,” Grant said. “I was optimistic last year, but not for any real reason. This year, we have some evidence to back up being that optimistic.”
One of the big reasons for the confidence boost is that, for a change, Grant returns to the same team he ran all last season for, giving them a year of experience under their belts to know how to communicate and bring the best out of each other. It’s certainly something they can use a stepping stone to achieve bigger and better things right from the start in 2019.
“Somebody tolerated me for two years in a row,” Grant said with a laugh. “It’s huge not having to learn the team and the team learning you and trying to mesh with the crew chief. When you have all that done already, you can just focus on winning races. You’re not worried about all the little things. Everybody’s so fast and has such good equipment right now, it really comes down to who meshes the best. It’s not necessarily who has the best stuff anymore. That obviously still plays into it, but these last couple years, more than ever, confidence in yourself and your team plays a bigger part.”
USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car racing returns to Ocala once again for the ninth consecutive year to kick off its season at “Winter Dirt Games.” The mini-series will take place at Bubba Raceway Park with an open practice night on Wednesday, February 13, then three complete full programs on Thursday, February 14, Friday, February 15 and Saturday, February 16.
Cars hit the track for engine heat at 6:30pm Eastern on both Thursday and Friday, February 14-15 and at 5:30pm on Saturday, February 16.