Kokomo, Indiana -- Fifty-nine races. 482 days. That's how long it had been since Justin Grant last reached USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory lane coming into Thursday night's "Sprint Car Smackdown VII" finale at Kokomo Speedway.
Likewise, it had been 43 races and 398 days since TOPP Motorsports last found victory lane themselves, incidentally enough at the "Smackdown" finale in 2017 with driver Tyler Courtney.
Fittingly, the conclusion of this 40-lap main event came down to Grant and Courtney, but it was Grant who ultimately pulled through to become the first driver in 2018 to win in all three USAC National divisions: Silver Crown, National Sprint and National Midget.
After a tumultuous year that's been plagued by misfortune and a seemingly endless cloud of bad luck, twas time for the turnstiles of fortune to change. Over their last handful of outings, Grant and the TOPP team discovered a little bit of lightning in a bottle, but still, that black cloud remained steadfast, casting a shadow of doubt.
The sun finally broke through those clouds for a change, and shined brightly on the Ione, Calif. native driver and the Rochester, Indiana-based team as they persevered for their first USAC win since pairing up at the beginning of the season.
"These last couple weeks, this TOPP Motorsports car has really been ripping and it's been a lot of fun to drive," Grant explained. "This race has always eluded me. I'm so excited to be up here and so happy to do it for these guys. They've got an awesome racecar. It's about time I lived up to their results from last year. It's been a rough year, but I told a few people this week that if I didn't win a race all year, but I got to win Smackdown, it would all be worth it."
Grant made his initial overture as a prime contender when he was victorious in the "King of the Hill" two-car shootout, which placed him on the pole for the feature. Grant appeared to have a nice jump on the start, yet Dave Darland was able to beat him to the point in turn one. Grant powered back, returning the favor by gracing the low line into turn three, then sliced up in front of Darland to retake the lead. From that point forward, Grant was nearly unattainable, laying down a one-second lead on Darland and the rest of the field in the early stages.
Just past midway, Grant was carving up lapped traffic like a Thanksgiving Day turkey as he dipped low and swung high to split his way through the blockade of racecars. A near close call came just moments later as he slid into turn two near Clinton Boyles. Grant's rear bumper and Boyles' front bumper sliced each other, but neither was worse for the wear and remained on course without harm.
Meanwhile, current third-place runner and defending race winner Courtney played the role of Pacman, chomping the interval down until he was in the same vicinity as Darland on lap 22 where he dove to the bottom, three-wide alongside Darland and Boyles, emerging at the exit of turn two with the second position and seeking the lead as Grant no longer was able to hide.
Once Courtney got to second, he was like Heinz - in catchup mode - as he cut tenths off here and there like a butter knife through a stick of Land O'Lakes. But, suddenly, Courtney's charge was placed on hold. Fifth-running Chris Windom had encountered a flat right-rear tire on his ride, which sent him to the work area for a fresh set of rubber during the night's lone yellow flag.
For the lap 30 restart, lapped traffic was clear, and an open track became a warm, welcomed sight. However, Grant and Courtney were separated by the lapped car of Scotty Weir. Grant set sail smoothly, cutting through the middle of the track, then running a consistent line of the top in turns one and two and the bottom in turns three or four while Courtney proceeded to swap lines to take on the challenge of reeling in Grant.
Courtney was only able to make up so much down the stretch as Grant was spot-on lap-after-lap, never missing a beat on his way to a 1.036 second win and a $10,000 payday. Courtney took second ahead of Hard Charger C.J. Leary, Rookie of the Race Jason McDougal and Brady Bacon.
"That's the best I've ever felt at this place," Grant admitted. "The car was on rails. I could use the cushion if I wanted to and I could rip right below it if I felt like it. It was really incredible. It was fun to drive. Lapped traffic had me pretty worried, but I felt like we were pretty good, and I could pick my way through. Restarts had me more worried than anything. Tyler's been a roll this year and a lot of times that momentum will let you do things you normally couldn't do. I was a little worried about holding him off on restarts, but it all worked out."
Contingency award winners Thursday night at Kokomo Speedway were Logan Seavey (Simpson Race Products/Competition Suspension, Inc. First Qualifying Race Winner & Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher), Justin Grant (Capitol Custom Trailers & Coaches King of the Hill Winner), C.J. Leary (KSE Racing Products/Elliott's Custom Trailers & Carts Hard Charge & B & W Auto Mart Pass Master & Chalk Stix/Indy Race Parts Second Qualifying Race), Chris Windom (Weld Cool Move of the Race), Chad Boespflug (STIDA.com Hard Luck Award) and Jason McDougal (Wilwood Brake Kit & Arizona Sport Shirts/Kick-It Rookie of the Race).
Tyler Courtney retook the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car point lead with 10 events remaining. The Indianapolis, Ind. driver now holds a seven-point advantage over Kevin Thomas, Jr., who finished 10th. Windom is third in the standings, making up a little bit of ground, trailing by 58 points behind Courtney.
FEATURE: (40 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (1), 2. Tyler Courtney (5), 3. C.J. Leary (10), 4. Jason McDougal (4), 5. Brady Bacon (6), 6. Chris Windom (8), 7. Dave Darland (2), 8. Tyler Thomas (3), 9. Chase Stockon (12), 10. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (7), 11. Jarett Andretti (14), 12. Dakota Jackson (15), 13. Logan Seavey (9), 14. Kyle Cummins (11), 15. Scotty Weir (13), 16. Carson Short (17), 17. Isaac Chapple (18), 18. Clinton Boyles (16), 19. Tyler Hewitt (20), 20. Corey Smith (23), 21. Brian VanMeveren (21), 22. Shane Cottle (22), 23. Landon Simon (19). NT
-USAC Press Release
-Photo credit: Travis Branch