By RICHIE MURRAY
OCALA, FL – Justin Grant has won a few and lost a few in the same manner throughout his racing career. He’s now won and lost in the same manner at Bubba Raceway Park following his USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory Friday on night two of “Winter Dirt Games X.”
The Ione, Calif. native won a “survival of the fittest” competition, so to speak, that saw several cars fall by the wayside with tire wear, including race leader Chris Windom with two laps remaining. That sent Grant to the front of the pack where he drove to his second career “Winter Dirt Games” triumph aboard his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Bow Foundation – Challenger Construction/Maxim/Claxton Chevy.
It was the 14th USAC National Sprint Car win of Grant’s career, tying him for 38th on the all-time list alongside Billy Cassella, Jim Hurtubise, Lee Kunzman and Bruce Walkup.
Grant began the 30-lapper from the second position alongside pole starter C.J. Leary, who got the jump on Grant at the drop of the green flag and quickly constructed a half-straightaway advantage by the sixth lap and would dominate the first half of the feature.
Thursday night winner Chris Windom began to creep his way toward Leary in lapped traffic, knocking down the interval to eight tenths by the 18th lap. Leary slid high between turns three and four on lap 20, allowing Windom to skate by on the bottom to grab the lead.
The race up front saw the leaders stick inside, trying to not make any mistakes by missing the line and saving the equipment in order to make the full distance in one piece in what, up to that point, had been a caution-free race. That is, until Fatheadz Eyewear fast qualifier and new one-lap track record holder Carson Short stopped on the front straightaway with a flat right rear tire while running sixth.
Meanwhile, Grant was mired in fourth, thinking about his own fate after preserving his equipment for the duration of the race up to that point. But this was the moment he decided to pull the trigger, quickly picking off Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Leary in quick succession to get to second on the restart with only Windom, the race leader, left in his sights, though Windom held a relatively comfortable advantage.
However, a yellow on lap 29 shifted the entire outlook as Brady Bacon (12th) and Jason McDougal (13th) simultaneously pulled to the top of turn one, both suffering from flat right rear tires. Under yellow, Windom discovered a devastating blow as his front right tire deflated, forcing him to pit and putting him out of contention for the win before, ultimately, finishing 21st.
Grant was now positioned as the leader for the green-white-checkered finish as several thoughts raced through his mind, mainly the rubber issue that had befallen a few others.
“I was a bit worried I’d used too much tire trying to get back to Windom,” Grant recalled. “That was my only concern once he puled off. I wish I had let him go, but you never know how these things are going to play out. I was definitely low on air by the end. Once you start cooking the tires like that, it starts knocking the air out of them and the thing was porpoising bad off the corner. I know I’d done all I could to save the tire, but I still knew it was going to be close.”
Another instance that weighed on Grant was a repeat of the 2016 “Winter Dirt Games” finale when he believed he had the victory sewn up. However, cataloging that moment in his memory served as a reminder on this particular night that this deal wasn’t over just quite yet.
“I’ve lost a race here in the middle of three and four, blowing a tire coming to the checker,” Grant remembered. “The last time I was leading down the back stretch in a rubber race here, I thought ‘yeah we made it.’ I refused to think it tonight until I was past the flag stand.”
“I tried to ride as much as I could early and stay out of the black as long as I could,” Grant continued. “In the race I lost, (Thomas) Meseraull won by staying out of the rubber for a good portion of it. He got in the rubber for a few laps, maintained it, then got out of the rubber, then back in the rubber. I tried to stay out of the rubber until it got fast enough that I had to be in it and not worry about losing one or two spots.”
On the restart, Grant’s preservation had equaled perseverance as he said ‘sayonara’ right from the restart and drove away to a 1.712 second victory over Leary, KSE Racing Products/ProSource Hard Charger Tyler Courtney from 22nd, Chad Boespflug and Thomas.
Grant owes some of his gratitude toward what he’s learned from his competitors and other cars he’s competed in throughout his career.
“You’re running a lot of Silver Crown races with Kody Swanson and he’s so good at that,” Grant points out. “He makes you figure out how to do it. It’s a bit harder to maintain in a sprint car because you can get behind. Had Windom not fallen out, we would’ve been caught behind. We wouldn’t have been able to get to him short of him getting tight or doing something in the rubber. He’d been spot on until that point. We caught a big break with him falling out. We’ve got a long year and we want to win the race, but we need to make it to the finish. If we ran second, then we were going to run second. It’s not worth blowing a tire over when you’re setting out to do the full tour.”
Grant had a sluggish start when he moved to the TOPP Motorsports team at the beginning of 2018. The combo rallied to win five races in a seven-race stretch toward the end of the season. In 2019, it took them just two races to reach victory lane.
“Every win in the No. 4 car is the most rewarding win,” Grant admitted. “It just feels like every time I’ve pulled into victory lane, it’s the most rewarding win I’ve ever had. These guys sticking by me meant so much to me last year. Kevin Birchmeier is such a great leader. He wouldn’t let us get down even when wanted to get down. He made us figure it out and kept our heads up. A lot of owners get down on you and start looking for the next great thing; he just kept pumping us up, kept building us up.”
“(Crew Chief) Mark (Shambarger) and I took a while to jell,” Grant continued. Now we get along great. I’m surprised he never killed me, but we all survived and we’re all here. Its great now. We’re going to keep riding it as long as we can and, hopefully, it stays this good and we keep rolling along. I’ve been around this game long enough to know that it comes in waves, so try to enjoy it while you’re riding high and dig through when you’re low. Sprint car racing is tough. It’s not easy. I feel like if you don’t enjoy the process and the struggle, then you’re not going to make it very long.”
Contingency award winners Friday night at Bubba Raceway Park were Carson Short (Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifier), Justin Grant (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner), C.J. Leary (Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner), Damion Gardner (Auto Meter Third Heat Winner), Robert Ballou (Indy Race Parts Fourth Heat Winner), Dakota Jackson (Roger & Barb Tapy 13th Fastest Qualifier), Robert Ballou (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher), Tyler Courtney (KSE Racing Products/ProSource Hard Charger & ProSource Hard Work) and Travis Hery (Saldana Racing Products First Non-Transfer).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: February 15, 2019 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – “Winter Dirt Games X”
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING: 1. Carson Short, 21, RCM-13.398 (New Track Record); 2. Chris Windom, 5G, Goacher-13.428; 3. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-13.459; 4. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 19, Hayward/Thomas-13.475; 5. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-13.520; 6. C.J. Leary, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-13.599; 7. Damion Gardner, 20, Dyson-13.608; 8. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-13.668; 9. Timmy Buckwalter, 7, LNB-13.687; 10. Matt Goodnight, 39, Goodnight-13.701; 11. Chad Boespflug, 98e, EZR-13.749; 12. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-13.809; 13. Dakota Jackson, 3, Jackson-13.835; 14. Kent Schmidt, 5K, KO-13.861; 15. Isaac Chapple, 52, LNR/Chapple-13.910; 16. Jason McDougal, 71p, Daigh/Phillips-13.954; 17. Joey Biasi, B1, Biasi-13.962; 18. Stephen Schnapf, 61m, Edwards-13.963; 19. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-13.983; 20. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-13.995; 21. Dustin Christie, 75, Christie-14.046; 22. Dave Darland, 5, Briscoe/Curb-Agajanian-14.105; 23. Ty Tilton, 42, Tilton-14.108; 24. Travis Hery, 21H, Hery-14.200; 25. Noah Gass, 20G, Gass-14.597; 26. Robert Bell, 71, Bell-15.510; 27. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson/Marshall/Newman-NT; 28. Daron Clayton, 5o, KO-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Grant, 2. Short, 3. Buckwalter, 4. Biasi, 5. Christie, 6. Jackson, 7. Gass. 1:56.48
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Leary, 2. Windom, 3. Darland, 4. Schnapf, 5. Schmidt, 6. Goodnight, 7. Bell. 1:56.72
AUTOMETER THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Gardner, 2. Bacon, 3. Courtney, 4. Westfall, 5. Boespflug, 6. Chapple, 7. Tilton. NT
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Ballou, 2. Stockon, 3. Thomas, 4. McDougal, 5. Cummins, 6. Hery, 7. Clayton. 2:00.00
SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer) 1. Jackson, 2. Boespflug, 3. Chapple, 4. Schmidt, 5. Goodnight, 6. Cummins, 7. Hery, 8. Gass, 9. Christie, 10. Bell. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting position in parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (2), 2. C.J. Leary (1), 3. Tyler Courtney (22), 4. Chad Boespflug (11), 5. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (3), 6. Damion Gardner (7), 7. Timmy Buckwalter (9), 8. Chase Stockon (8), 9. Dave Darland (21), 10. Kyle Cummins (12), 11. Dakota Jackson (13), 12. Isaac Chapple (15), 13. Robert Ballou (20), 14. Carson Short (6), 15. Brady Bacon (4), 16. Jason McDougal (16), 17. Joey Biasi (17), 18. Matt Goodnight (10), 19. Matt Westfall (19), 20. Stephen Schnapf (18), 21. Chris Windom (5), 22. Kent Schmidt (14). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-19 Leary, Laps 20-28 Windom, Laps 29-30 Grant.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Tyler Courtney (22nd to 3rd)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Robert Ballou
PROSOURCE HARD WORK: Tyler Courtney
SALDANA RACING PRODUCTS FIRST NON-TRANSFER: Travis Hery
ROGER & BARB TAPY 13TH FASTEST QUALIFIER: Dakota Jackson
HUGHES RACING/INDIANA MAFIA/FLAMINGO SANDY PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Darland-21, 2-Courtney-19, 3-Boespflug-17, 4-Ballou-12, 5-Grant-10, 6-Leary-5, 7-Buckwalter-5, 8-Windom-4, 9-Chapple-3, 10-Cummins-2.
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Grant-152, 2-Thomas-139, 3-Leary-139, 4-Stockon-128, 5-Windom-115, 6-Ballou-111, 7-Boespflug-108, 8-Darland-105, 9-Bacon-104, 10-Courtney-103.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: February 16, 2019 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – “Winter Dirt Games X”