SPEEDWAY, IN – Regardless of whether it involves a season-long championship or a week-long mini-series, every position, every minute move on the racetrack, can make the difference in winning a championship or falling just short.
That’s been the deal time and time again in USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car competition, and the situation arose once more on Sunday night in the 2021 Eastern Storm finale at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Fair Raceway, resulting in the final tally being ranked as the closest Eastern Storm finish ever, equaling Bryan Clauson’s one-point victory over Dave Darland in 2013.
One single, solitary point. That was the difference between Eastern Storm champ Robert Ballou and runner-up Brady Bacon this past week. That equals just one position in qualifying, one position in a heat race or one position in a feature somewhere along the line over the span of four nights.
Ballou never once finished outside the top-five until the final night, taking sixth, while Bacon occupied the top-five each night. To many, the apparent difference may come in looking at the win column. Ballou won once at Bridgeport while Bacon missed out on a feature win during the week.
However, eight points per night can be collected by virtue of winning a heat race, and Ballou did just that at Grandview, at Bridgeport, at Selinsgrove and at Bloomsburg.
Four races. Four heat race wins.
In all, Ballou accrued 32 points through his heat race scores while Bacon collected 26, a six-point difference, which is akin to two extra positions in the feature.
Ballou parlayed mostly middling qualifying results throughout the week into prime starting positions during the feature. Ballou qualified 14th at Grandview, 2nd at Bridgeport, 15th at Selinsgrove and 16th at Bloomsburg, which, due to the top-six qualifiers being inverted in each heat, provided him an opportunity and a starting position on the front row of heat races on three of the four nights.
The only night Ballou found himself outside of the front row came at Bridgeport where he started 6th. However, a multi-car accident that eliminated contenders Paul Nienhiser and Jake Swanson, plus a few swift moves on the ensuing restart, Ballou got himself to victory lane once again.
By virtue of a relatively new USAC rule that began at the dawn of the 2020 National season that rewards heat race winners with a starting position of no worse than 10th in the feature. a driver’s night can ultimately be salvaged by performing well in the prelims. To explain further, if Ballou did not win his heat, he’d start his feature in a position based on his qualifying run, which would’ve found him starting in the back half of the field on three of the four occasions.
Instead, Ballou never started worse than 9th in a feature all week, then parlayed those benefits into a positive outcome by moving forward in the feature.
Every little pass has it rewards, and Ballou reaped them all throughout the week, setting up a Bloomsburg showdown that saw Ballou holding a 10-point cushion over Bacon entering the 30-lap feature, meaning Ballou needed to finish within three positions of sixth-starting Bacon to secure the title.
Ballou maintained that narrow, required band throughout much of the middle stages. Both Bacon and Ballou ran 3rd and 6th, respectively, between laps seven and twelve of the feature. On lap 13, both simultaneously moved up one position to 2nd and 5th with Ballou maintaining that single point edge.
With seven laps remaining, Alex Bright slid by Ballou to take the 5th position, relegating Ballou back to 6th. For a five-lap span between laps 23-27, Bacon had the Eastern Storm title within his grasp, holding a two-point advantage over Ballou with just three laps remaining.
That’s when the tide turned once again when hard-charging Tanner Thorson raced under Bacon for the second position in turn one, moving Bacon back to 3rd and handed the point lead back to Ballou by one once again.
Ballou staked his ground, with he and Bacon finishing the feature exactly three positions apart and with exactly one point of a separation between the two, winding up with Ballou as the champion and Bacon as the runner-up.
Ballou’s four-race Eastern Storm record of 5th, 1st, 2nd and 6th place finishes secured his second career Eastern Storm title, and first since 2015, a season in which the Rocklin, Calif. carried onward to win the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Driving Championship.
In nine of its previous 13 years, the Eastern Storm champion has gone on to win that year’s USAC AMSOIL National Sprint car championship: Levi Jones (2007-10-11), Bryan Clauson (2012-13), Brady Bacon (2014), Robert Ballou (2015), Chris Windom (2017) and C.J. Leary (2019). A trend Ballou would certainly like to continue into 2021.
Justin Grant led all drivers as the only multi-time winner during 2021 Eastern Storm with a pair of wins at Grandview and Selinsgrove while also leading the most laps with 47.
Bacon was the lone driver to finish inside the top-five of all four events and was one of three to finish within the top-ten in each of the four along with Ballou and Bloomsburg winner Kevin Thomas Jr.
Four different drivers added Fatheadz Fast Qualifying runs during the four nights: Justin Grant (Bridgeport), Chase Stockon (Bloomsburg), Kevin Thomas Jr. (Grandview) and Chris Windom (Selinsgrove).
Seventeen drivers started all four feature events: Brady Bacon, Robert Ballou, Alex Bright, Shane Cottle, Briggs Danner, Charles Davis Jr., Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Paul Nienhiser, Logan Seavey, Mark Smith, Chase Stockon, Jake Swanson, Kevin Thomas Jr., Tanner Thorson, Matt Westfall and Chris Windom.
Twenty drivers in all traveled to each of the four events, with all those listed above, plus Timmy Buckwalter, Steven Drevicki and Brandon Mattox.
C.J. Leary utilized a backup car for the feature following an engine failure in his primary car during qualifying at Bloomsburg. Leary used the “backup” to make the biggest position advancement (14) in any race during 2021 Eastern Storm, driving from the 21st starting position to a 7th place finish in the feature.
On the all-time Eastern Storm win records, Robert Ballou moved to fourth-all-time with his fifth career feature win in the series at Bridgeport, and now trails only Bryan Clauson, Levi Jones and Chris Windom who all have six. Kevin Thomas Jr. earned his third career Eastern Storm win, which came at Bloomsburg, and ties him with Cole Whitt on the three-line. After a decade of trying, Justin Grant finally broke through for his first Eastern Storm win in his 24th start, then followed up with his second just two nights later at Selinsgrove.
Selinsgrove marked the first USAC National Sprint Car event held at the track since 1971, a half-century since Mitch Smith’s stirring drive to win. The appearance at Bridgeport was the third overall by the series, but the first on the newly-reconfigured 4/10-mile version. Eastern Storm had held events at the track in 2018-19, both of which came at the venue’s former 3/8-mile layout.
Meanwhile, Port Royal’s Eastern Storm race had been held annually since 2012, and this year’s rain out was the first absence of the half-mile track on the tour since its debut was rained out in 2011.
Bloomsburg Fair Raceway’s 3/8-mile represented a new first-time track for the series. The half-mile, which still surrounds the new track, was utilized for auto racing during much of the 20th century until the mid-1980s. While it was USAC’s first foray to the venue, it had previously hosted numerous ARDC Midget and URC Sprint Car events as well as 1949 Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Holland’s AAA Sprint Car triumph there in 1946 and Herb Thomas’ NASCAR Grand National score in 1953.
2021 USAC EASTERN STORM RACE-BY-RACE BREAKDOWN:
ROUND #1: GRANDVIEW SPEEDWAY – BECHTELSVILLE, PA – JUNE 15, 2021
Every victory holds significance for a racer. From time to time, there’s something that makes a win even a little more special.
That was the case for Justin Grant on Tuesday night in the USAC Eastern Storm opener at Grandview Speedway in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania.
With his 23rd career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature victory, the Ione, Calif. surpassed his father-in-law on the all-time win list, the late, great Bubby Jones, who passed away in January 2020.
It had been four months since the 22nd and most recent victory for Grant, in Ocala, Fla., a number which tied him with the National Sprint Car Hall of Famer, Ol’ Bub.
“It means a lot,” Grant said. “Bubby was awesome and won a lot of races and he helped me win a lot of races. We miss him a lot and I wish he was here to see it. I’m sure he would’ve helped me get there tonight. Bub won more races than I’m ever going to win and, if he was here, he’d tell you. It was really special to be on the same number (of wins) for a while, which also means it’s been a really long time since we won a race, so I’ve got to relish it.”
FAST QUALIFIER: Kevin Thomas Jr., 9K, KT-14.344
HEAT RACE WINNERS: Briggs Danner, Robert Ballou & Jake Swanson
SEMI WINNER: Timmy Buckwalter
FEATURE FINISH: (Starting Positions in Parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (1), 2. Brady Bacon (5), 3. Tanner Thorson (3), 4. Kevin Thomas Jr. (6), 5. Robert Ballou (9), 6. Briggs Danner (8), 7. Chris Windom (13), 8. Alex Bright (2), 9. Timmy Buckwalter (10), 10. Matt Westfall (4), 11. Chase Stockon (15), 12. Jake Swanson (7), 13. Logan Seavey (18), 14. Charles Davis Jr. (14), 15. C.J. Leary (19), 16. Shane Cottle (17), 17. Paul Nienhiser (22), 18. Isaac Chapple (21), 19. Brandon Mattox (11), 20. Nash Ely (20), 21. Steven Drevicki (12), 22. Mark Smith (16). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-40 Justin Grant.
ROUND #2: BRIDGEPORT MOTORSPORTS PARK – SWEDESBORO, NJ – JUNE 16, 2021
Robert Ballou’s first career victory in the state of New Jersey during the 2015 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car season led him to an Eastern Storm title and, ultimately, a USAC National title late that year.
Wednesday night in round two of the 2021 edition of Eastern Storm, Ballou’s triumph at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Motorsports Park just so happened to propel the Rocklin, Calif. driver into the Eastern Storm point lead.
His 31st career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature win at Bridgeport moved him past Tyler Courtney and into sole possession of 14th place on the all-time series win list, just one behind 1973 driving champion Rollie Beale.
Ballou did it basically serving as his own crew chief, calling the shots on the decisions that are made on race night as well as bigger picture decisions at the shop, like his move to revamp his lineup of cars in the offseason after going winless for nearly three consecutive seasons.
“We switched chassis over the winter,” Ballou explained. “I used to run them back in 2010 and thought that we should change back. We have two cars now and they’re unbelievable, and I just had to get a balance. There’s a fine line in getting it just right. I’m probably the biggest pain in the (butt) driver, but as of now, I’m the crew chief, so I can only be mad at myself, but I’ve got really good guys that keep busting their butts every night.”
FAST QUALIFIER: Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-15.799 (New Track Record)
HEAT RACE WINNERS: Timmy Buckwalter, Robert Ballou & Chase Stockon
SEMI WINNER: Paul Nienhiser
FEATURE FINISH: (Starting positions in parentheses) 1. Robert Ballou (5), 2. Shane Cottle (1), 3. Chris Windom (2), 4. Brady Bacon (14), 5. Briggs Danner (4), 6. Justin Grant (6), 7. C.J. Leary (3), 8. Timmy Buckwalter (8), 9. Steven Drevicki (19), 10. Kevin Thomas Jr. (15), 11. Jake Swanson (9), 12. Tanner Thorson (10), 13. Logan Seavey (12), 14. Charles Davis Jr. (16), 15. Isaac Chapple (11), 16. Paul Nienhiser (13), 17. Alex Bright (22), 18. Chase Stockon (7), 19. Brandon Mattox (18), 20. Mark Bitner (21), 21. Mark Smith (20), 22. Matt Westfall (23), 23. Nash Ely (17). 8:47.620 (New Track Record)
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-16 Shane Cottle, Laps 17-30 Robert Ballou.
ROUND #3: SELINSGROVE SPEEDWAY – SELINSGROVE, PA – JUNE 17, 2021
The waiting is the hardest part.
While race fans endured a wait of fifty years between the first and second USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car appearances at Pennsylvania’s Selinsgrove Speedway, Justin Grant only had to wait a mere two days between Eastern Storm win number one and Eastern Storm win number two.
Just 48 hours after earning his first career Eastern Storm feature triumph following a near decade of trying, the Ione, Calif. driver collected his second career Eastern Storm score in a three-night span, leading the final seven laps on Thursday night around the half-mile dirt oval which had last hosted a USAC National Sprint Car event in 1971.
Grant took the lead from Windom seven laps from the finish, then withstood multiple Robert Ballou slide job attempts during the final restart to win his third series feature of the season, and 24th of his USAC National Sprint Car career, surpassing Roger McCluskey for 27th all-time in his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – MPV Express – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy.
“These half-miles, they’re not always the most comfortable thing, so a lot of times it comes down to knowing you have a good racecar,” Grant explained. “But it seemed like everybody up front was all kind of running the same speed there. Coming to these half-miles, you’ve just got to want to win these races bad, and we really, really wanted to win this race tonight. We got off to a good start this year, then got kind of slow, so we’re trying to make up for it now.”
FAST QUALIFIER: Chris Windom, 19, Hayward-19.506 (New Track Record)
HEAT RACE WINNERS: Briggs Danner, Tanner Thorson & Robert Ballou
FEATURE FINISH: (Starting positions in parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (4), 2. Robert Ballou (7), 3. C.J. Leary (2), 4. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1), 5. Brady Bacon (5), 6. Alex Bright (10), 7. Jake Swanson (20), 8. Carmen Perigo (14), 9. Mark Smith (17), 10. Chase Johnson (11), 11. Shane Cottle (13), 12. Tanner Thorson (3), 13. Matt Westfall (15), 14. Steven Drevicki (16), 15. Chris Windom (6), 16. Brandon Mattox (21), 17. Chase Stockon (18), 18. Paul Nienhiser (19), 19. Charles Davis Jr. (12), 20. Logan Seavey (9), 21. Briggs Danner (8), 22. Isaac Chapple (22). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-12 Kevin Thomas Jr., Laps 13-23 Chris Windom, Laps 24-30 Justin Grant.
ROUND #4: BLOOMSBURG FAIR RACEWAY – BLOOMSBURG, PA – JUNE 20, 2021
Just six days following his 30th birthday, Kevin Thomas Jr. celebrated another milestone 30th on Sunday night at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Fair Raceway by winning his 30th career USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship feature event in the series’ debut at the brand-new 3/8-mile dirt oval.
Thomas Jr. left little doubt and embraced the lack of drama from his point of view from the drop of the green to the checkered, bouncing out to a three-second, near-straightaway lead by lap five after starting from the pole position.
Down the stretch, Thomas was uncompromised and unaccompanied by any challengers as he raced to his third series win of the year by a 0.879 second margin.
Thomas’ 30th career USAC National Sprint Car win moved him into a tie for 15th all-time alongside Tyler Courtney, a position he credits to his crew utilizing the last couple of “off days” to get the car back on rails for the team’s first series victory since mid-April.
“We had a good Dr. Pepper 9K,” Thomas stated. “We just finally clicked one off there. It’s been a little bit of a struggle bus since April, but these guys went to work yesterday and the day before and they did some things to the car that made it so much better to drive in the slick. I think we finally figured some things out with our engine program and the car itself to get ourselves up front in these races.”
FAST QUALIFIER: Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-15.936 (New Track Record)
HEAT RACE WINNERS: Robert Ballou, Brady Bacon & Mark Smith
FEATURE FINISH: (Starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1), 2. Tanner Thorson (5), 3. Brady Bacon (6), 4. Jake Swanson (4), 5. Alex Bright (9), 6. Robert Ballou (7), 7. C.J. Leary (21), 8. Briggs Danner (2), 9. Timmy Buckwalter (11), 10. Shane Cottle (3), 11. Paul Nienhiser (13), 12. Chase Stockon (10), 13. Chris Windom (20), 14. Logan Seavey (12), 15. Matt Westfall (16), 16. Mark Smith (8), 17. Nash Ely (15), 18. Carmen Perigo (18), 19. Charles Davis Jr. (17), 20. Alex Banales (19), 21. Justin Grant (14), 22. Richy Carnathan (23), 23. Michael Markey (22). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-30 Kevin Thomas Jr.
2021 USAC EASTERN STORM STAT LEADERS
Most Wins: 2-Justin Grant
Driver Champion: Robert Ballou
Most Laps Led: 47-Justin Grant
Most Top-Fives: 4-Brady Bacon
Most Top-Tens: 4-Brady Bacon, Robert Ballou & Kevin Thomas Jr.
Most Fast Qualifying Times: 1-Justin Grant, Chase Stockon, Kevin Thomas Jr. & Chris Windom
Most Heat Race Wins: 4-Robert Ballou
Most Feature Starts: 4-Brady Bacon, Robert Ballou, Alex Bright, Shane Cottle, Briggs Danner, Charles Davis Jr., Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Paul Nienhiser, Logan Seavey, Mark Smith, Chase Stockon, Jake Swanson, Kevin Thomas Jr., Tanner Thorson, Matt Westfall & Chris Windom
Biggest Charge of the Week: 6/20: Bloomsburg Fair Speedway – C.J. Leary (21st to 7th)
2021 USAC EASTERN STORM DRIVER POINT STANDINGS
POS. PTS. DRIVER, HOMETOWN
1 287 Robert Ballou, Rocklin, Calif.
2 286 Brady Bacon, Broken Arrow, Okla.
3 266 Kevin Thomas Jr., Cullman, Ala.
4 250 Justin Grant, Ione, Calif.
5 238 Tanner Thorson, Minden, Nev.
6 226 C.J. Leary, Greenfield, Ind.
7 216 Briggs Danner, Allentown, Pa.
8 214 Jake Swanson, Anaheim, Calif.
9 213 Chris Windom, Canton, Ill.
10 211 Alex Bright, Collegeville, Pa.
11 210 Shane Cottle, Kansas, Ill.
12 169 Timmy Buckwalter, Douglassville, Pa.
13 162 Chase Stockon, Fort Branch, Ind.
14 148 Logan Seavey, Sutter, Calif.
15 141 Charles Davis Jr., Buckeye, Ariz.
16 140 Paul Nienhiser, Chapin, Ill.
17 139 Mark Smith, Sunbury, Pa.
18 137 Matt Westfall, Pleasant Hill, Ohio
19 126 Steven Drevicki, Reading, Pa.
20 99 Brandon Mattox, Terre Haute, Ind.
21 87 Isaac Chapple, Willow Branch, Ind.
22 85 Nash Ely, Sinking Spring, Pa.
23 83 Carmen Perigo, Stoystown, Pa.
24 48 Chase Johnson, Penngrove, Calif.
25 45 Alex Banales, Lafayette, Ind.
26 27 Mark Bitner, Columbus, N.J.
27 25 Richy Carnathan, Northampton, Pa.
28 24 Michael Markey, Hanover, Pa.
29 20 Craig Pellegrini, Buena, N.J.
30 10 Mike Meyers, Zionsville, Pa.
31 10 Tom Savage, Red Lion, Pa.
32 10 Chris Allen Jr., Old Bridge, N.J.
2021 USAC EASTERN STORM SCHEDULE & RESULTS
June 15: Grandview Speedway – Bechtelsville, PA
WINNER: Justin Grant (TOPP Motorsports #4)
June 16: Bridgeport Speedway – Swedesboro, NJ
WINNER: Robert Ballou (Ballou Motorsports #12)
June 17: Selinsgrove Speedway – Selinsgrove, PA
WINNER: Justin Grant (TOPP Motorsports #4)
June 19: Port Royal Speedway – Port Royal, PA
WINNER: Rained Out
June 20: Bloomsburg Fair Raceway – Bloomsburg, PA
WINNER: Kevin Thomas Jr. (KT Motorsports #9K)
2021 USAC EASTERN STORM STATISTICS
2-Justin Grant (June 15 at Grandview Speedway & June 17 at Selinsgrove Speedway)
1-Robert Ballou (June 16 at Bridgeport Speedway)
1-Kevin Thomas Jr. (June 20 at Bloomsburg Fair Raceway)
FEATURE LAPS LED
42-Kevin Thomas Jr.
TOP-FIVE FEATURE FINISHES
3-Robert Ballou & Kevin Thomas Jr.
2-Justin Grant & Tanner Thorson
1-Alex Bright, Shane Cottle, Briggs Danner, C.J. Leary, Jake Swanson & Chris Windom
TOP-TEN FEATURE FINISHES
4-Brady Bacon, Robert Ballou & Kevin Thomas Jr.
3-Alex Bright, Timmy Buckwalter, Briggs Danner, Justin Grant & C.J. Leary
2-Shane Cottle, Jake Swanson, Tanner Thorson & Chris Windom
1-Steven Drevicki, Chase Johnson, Carmen Perigo, Mark Smith & Matt Westfall
FAST QUALIFYING TIMES (Presented by Fatheadz Eyewear)
1-Justin Grant, Chase Stockon, Kevin Thomas Jr. & Chris Windom
HEAT RACE WINS (Presented by Simpson Race Products, Competition Suspension (CSI), Indy Metal Finishing & Indy Race Parts)
1-Brady Bacon, Timmy Buckwalter, Chase Stockon, Mark Smith, Jake Swanson & Tanner Thorson
1-Timmy Buckwalter & Paul Nienhiser
4-Brady Bacon, Robert Ballou, Alex Bright, Shane Cottle, Briggs Danner, Charles Davis Jr., Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Paul Nienhiser, Logan Seavey, Mark Smith, Chase Stockon, Jake Swanson, Kevin Thomas Jr., Tanner Thorson, Matt Westfall & Chris Windom
3-Timmy Buckwalter, Isaac Chapple, Steven Drevicki, Nash Ely & Brandon Mattox
1-Alex Banales, Mark Bitner, Richy Carnathan, Chase Johnson & Michael Markey
GSP QUALITY DRIVING PERFORMANCE OF THE NIGHT
6/15: Grandview Speedway – Jake Swanson
6/16: Bridgeport Speedway – Jake Swanson
6/17: Selinsgrove Speedway – C.J. Leary
6/20: Bloomsburg Fair Speedway – Alex Bright
KSE RACING PRODUCTS / IRVIN KING “HARD CHARGER” OF THE RACE
6/15: Grandview Speedway – Chris Windom (13th to 7th)
6/16: Bridgeport Speedway – Brady Bacon (14th to 4th)
6/17: Selinsgrove Speedway – Jake Swanson (20th to 7th)
6/20: Bloomsburg Fair Speedway – C.J. Leary (21st to 7th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER
6/15: Grandview Speedway – Logan Seavey
6/16: Bridgeport Speedway – Logan Seavey
6/17: Selinsgrove Speedway – Matt Westfall
6/20: Bloomsburg Fair Speedway – Chris Windom
SALDANA RACING PRODUCTS FIRST NON-TRANSFER
6/15: Grandview Speedway – Alex Banales
6/16: Bridgeport Speedway – Matt Westfall
6/17: Selinsgrove Speedway – None
6/20: Bloomsburg Fair Speedway – None
ALL-TIME EASTERN STORM FEATURE WINS (2007-2021)
6-Bryan Clauson, Levi Jones & Chris Windom
3-Kevin Thomas Jr. & Cole Whitt
2-Tyler Courtney, Justin Grant & Thomas Meseraull
1-Chad Boat, Chad Boespflug, Daron Clayton, Shane Cottle, Dave Darland, Bobby East, Damion Gardner, Jesse Hockett, Jason McDougal, Hunter Schuerenberg, Jon Stanbrough, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. & Chase Stockon
EASTERN STORM CHAMPIONS
2007: Levi Jones
2008: Cole Whitt
2009: Cole Whitt
2010: Levi Jones
2011: Levi Jones
2012: Bryan Clauson
2013: Bryan Clauson
2014: Brady Bacon
2015: Robert Ballou
2016: Bryan Clauson
2017: Chris Windom
2018: Chris Windom
2019: C.J. Leary
2020: Not Held
2021: Robert Ballou