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Following Friday night’s USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory at Plymouth Speedway, we can just about officially classify Justin Grant as “red hot.”
No, we’re not talking about the massive sunburn the Ione, Calif. driver was sporting following a recent five-hour kayaking adventure, but of his recent run in the sprint car that has witnessed him win three of last four series events in the month of June.
Watch the feature replay from Plymouth:
By doing so, Grant became the first driver to win three of four during a stretch of the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car season since he, himself did it toward the end of the 2018 season, when he actually won four in a five-race stretch.
For Grant, this is different, though. This is in the thick of the season, and with even bigger goals in mind as the season progresses, the confidence within Grant is at peak level every time he straps into the TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – TOPP Industries – The Bow Foundation/Maxim/Claxton Chevy No. 4.
“The only other time I hit on a run like this was at the end of 2018,” Grant recalled. “Then, the year ended. They iced us, then we weren’t hot when we went back again. Honestly, I feel right now, not to sound cocky, it really feels like I can go into any racetrack and we’re going to win that night. I have momentum and confidence, everything’s clicking, I feel great, the car’s great, the team’s great and it’s all really come together.”
A standard winter “break” between racing seasons is nearly non-existent each year with thrashing, building and rebuilding the name of the game. But with time on their hands and playing the waiting game during the extended offseason amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Grant had the opportunity to sit down and pencil out his personal goals and what it’s going to take to get there.
As a result, Grant revealed he’s in the best physical shape of his life and, mentally, he’s as quick as he’s ever been. With team owner Kevin Birchmeier and crew chief Mark Shambarger, the team is firing on all cylinders at the moment, and lead the standings by 37 exiting Plymouth just six races into the year, all of which the team has finished in the top-five and half of which the team has enjoyed the spoils of victory.
Grant started the race from the pole position, but it was Dave Darland who gained the early lead with a strong start from the outside of the front row, ultimately leading the first two laps of the 30-lap feature. On the third lap, Grant drove his machine to the topside of the third turn, then diamonded off toward the bottom of turn four to blitz underneath Darland for the race lead at the line by a half-car length.
A half-lap later, calamity ensued as Chris Windom and Brady Bacon made contact in turn three – Windom’s right front to Bacon’s left rear – sending Bacon into a wild series of nose-to-tail flips while Windom slid to a stop. Incredibly, both were able to make repairs and return to action during the red flag period, then restarted from the tail with Windom getting back to 11th and Bacon, with a caved-in tail tank and all, charging back to finish 9th.
On the ensuing restart, Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifier C.J. Leary was the man on the move, ripping around the outside of Darland for the second position, then was right on the back bumper of Grant for the race lead where he’d remain one-two-three car lengths behind for most of the first half of the race.
On lap 13, Grant made, arguably, his defining move of the race, splitting between the cars of Blake Vermillion and Steve Irwin entering the third turn while Leary tried to find the space to fenagle his way back to Grant, but it was to no avail for the time being as Grant cracked open an instant half-straightaway lead.
At the time of the move, Grant recalled hearing somebody in his proximity in arrears. On this night, Grant explained that all his speed was made on entry and it was the momentum that propelled him through the exit. In essence, if you entered the corner slow, you were going to be slow all through the corner, thus allowing a trailing driver a chance to eat up ground in a hurry if he were to enter the corner full steam ahead.
Hear from the top three after Plymouth:
“I didn’t know who it was, but I knew the clock was ticking on this deal; we got to get going,” Grant exclaimed. “I felt like I could hear somebody. It’s funny, when you do this enough, I don’t know if you actually hear them or if you just start to get a feeling of how long you’ve been running slow laps, or what it is, but I felt like there was a right front to my left rear at one point and a little bit of a gap opened up so that a guy could shoot that hole. We blazed on through there and it worked out.”
Once clear, the remainder of traffic seemingly fell into place on the bottom while Grant ripped the top, where he was now clipping, stretching his lead to 2.5 seconds by halfway and then to a full straightaway by the time there was 10 to go.
Meanwhile, further back, Tanner Thorson was making in an impressive charge in what was, believe it or not, his first career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car start. With seven laps remaining, the 2016 USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget champion and three-time winner with the series thus far this year, slide jobbed Leary for second in turn one, then proceeded to try to truncate Grant’s monstrous lead as Grant navigated a swath of hefty traffic.
Grant was methodical, but was wary of the consequences of impatience in traffic following trouble in last Sunday’s unsanctioned Kokomo Speedway Sprint Car feature where he was battling for the lead when ran into the back of a lapped car and turned himself around, giving him pause for his air of invincibility.
“It was a really good reminder since I haven’t done that in a while,” Grant admitted. “It was a good reminder that, ‘hey, you’re not invincible.’ You’ve got to pay attention. You can still get flustered. I was starting to think I was pretty unflusterable in lapped traffic. Tonight, I just talked myself through it, took the opportunities as they came and capitalized on them when I had them, but didn’t force them, and just tried to pick my way through.”
A close encounter came about when Grant scraped his front wheel on the rear bumper of series Rookie Anthony D’Alessio at the start/finish line just beneath the waving of Tom Hansing’s white flag. Grant cut the inside in turn one, and from there, it was pretty much clear sailing as Grant closed out his second USAC AMSOIL National Sprint car victory at Plymouth after winning the series debut at the 3/8-mile in 2017.
Thorson was an impressive second-place, 1.191 second behind Grant at the checkered, with Leary, Chase Stockon and Darland rounding out the top-five.
For Grant, it was the 19th victory of his USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car career, putting him two behind 1967 series champion Greg Weld for 29th all-time. Grant also became the first driver since Kevin Thomas Jr. to win three of the first six USAC National Sprint Car races to begin a season.
Stockon made history Friday night at Plymouth, becoming the first driver to reach 300 consecutive USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature starts, a remarkable record that has spanned every series race since the beginning of the 2012 season.