West Burlington, IA -- The return to racing has been very kind to Justin Grant over the past two weeks. With a pair of midget wins in recent weeks, a USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory was next on the serving tray Saturday night at 34 Raceway in West Burlington, Iowa as the Ione, Calif. native led wire-to-wire in the first series event in 112 days.
With his 17th career series victory, Grant moved into a tie for 30th on the all-time USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car win list alongside Jerry Coons, Jr., Parnelli Jones and Bud Kaeding.
Grant started from the outside of the front row and utilized the top side to surge past C.J. Leary on the initial aborted start. On the second try, Grant rinsed and repeated to get to the point ahead of Leary, who was making his debut in the KO Motorsports No. 5K normally driven by Kent Schmidt.
Leary's intended ride, the family owned No. 30, was heavily damaged in a high-flying, guardrail-clearing crash Friday night in a POWRi WAR Sprint Car race just a little down the road at Lee County Speedway in Donnellson, Iowa. A last-minute deal was struck late Friday night to put Leary in the seat for Saturday.
Grant extended his advantage ahead of Leary to over a second just six laps in as the leaders were already approaching traffic. That allowed Leary to close the gap and get within three-quarters of a second of Grant as they both waded their way through the throng.
Early on, the drivers on the tail end of the lead lap utilized the low line, but by the 10th lap, Grant's torrid pace had brought into the thick of battles for position in the pack, which occupied the lines on both the bottom and middle. As Dakota Jackson and Jonathan Vennard tussled side-by-side for position, Grant got briefly caught behind Vennard, who was making his first USAC National Sprint Car start since 2006, then swung high to get around both as Leary closed to within three car lengths of Grant's rear bumper.
Grant continued the forward march in his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink - TOPP Industries - The Bow Foundation/Maxim/Claxton Chevy, sliding by to put Dustin Smith a lap down as the track surface began to take rubber following a hot, sun-baked afternoon. Grant ran his - at the time - fastest lap of the race at midway, pulling away to a 1.5 second lead over Leary once again.
With the heaviest of traffic still lying in wait out in front of him, and using lines top to middle to bottom, Grant found it to be tough sledding finding a spot to find his way into even though he knew he had the car on this night to do whatever he needed it to do. Yet, patience, conservation and more patience was the name of the game.
"I was plenty good enough to get a run to slide a lapper and get back to the rubber," Grant recalled. "But it was gridlock, there was nowhere to slip into. I tried it a couple times and about banged wheels with a guy. You can get your right front to their nerf bar, but you can spin yourself out, so you've got to be careful."
"I figured, just get nose-to-tail and nobody else can slide in, I guess, unless they run in and bash somebody," Grant continued. "So, I settled in and figured I'll just stay tight here, and if a hole opens up, I'll take it. If not, I'll just try to fend off what I can. There's not much you can do in that situation except not beat yourself."
With five to go, Grant entered turn one on the bottom, then drifted up to the middle, allowing Leary to stick a nose to the inside of Grant for the race lead. When Leary became fully beside him, that caught Grant's attention.
"I saw a right front poke up underneath me and thought it's probably not a lapper trying to drive up alongside me."
It certainly wasn't, and Grant was able to fend Leary off, driving back around the outside off turn two to retain the lead. One lap later, the deck was reshuffled when 16th running Brandon Mattox slowed in turn three with a flat right rear tire, setting up a four-lap dash to the finish, albeit now without the throes of traffic.
"Once the yellow came out, it's like okay, let's get the tires cooled down," Grant said. "Then, you want to keep air in them; you've got to keep them cool, but you also got to keep them hot enough so they keep air in them. I'm trying to do that and not wear them out. When it went back green, I smoked two or three hard ones to get the air back up in the tire, and thought, 'let's get a cushion, settle in and start rolling on the right front through the center.' Once it got quiet, I went back into tire conservation mode."
Grant admitted he's usually not too excited being the leader when the track lays rubber and the yellow comes out, but it was fixing to be a dogfight down the stretch, and this time, he didn't have a problem with the stoppage.
"I was glad to see the yellow come out and get us some open track," Grant said. "Rubber's always nerve wracking because a small miss can cost you a half-second, three quarters of a second a lap. It can be locked in here and an inch and a half over, it's dead slick."
Grant found the groove theoretically, figuratively and literally in the last stint, completing the fastest lap of the race on the final circuit, to reign victorious for the first time with the series in 2020 by 0.845 sec. over Leary, Kevin Thomas Jr., Brady Bacon and Chris Windom.
For fourth-place finisher Bacon, it was his 334th career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature start, moving him into the top-ten all-time past 1977-81-82 series champion Sheldon Kinser.
Results: 1. Justin Grant (2), 2. C.J. Leary (1), 3. Kevin Thomas Jr. (5), 4. Brady Bacon (6), 5. Chris Windom (4), 6. Logan Seavey (7), 7. Robert Ballou (3), 8. Wyatt Burks (10), 9. Carson Short (8), 10. Chase Stockon (9), 11. Mario Clouser (11), 12. Matt Westfall (16), 13. Dave Darland (14), 14. Kory Schudy (21), 15. Jadon Rogers (13), 16. Zach Daum (20), 17. Mitchell Davis (17), 18. Jonathan Vennard (18), 19. Chris Phillips (22), 20. Matt Goodnight (24), 21. Brandon Mattox (15), 22. Dustin Smith (12), 23. Dakota Jackson (19), 24. Anton Hernandez (23). NT
-USAC Press Release by Richie Murray
-Photo credit: Brendan Bauman