Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania………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.”
Funny enough, it was Grant who initiated the drive to bring USAC Sprint Car racing back to Selinsgrove following a half-century absence. A couple of years ago, Grant and fellow driver Jason McDougal paid a visit to the track on their own and pleaded their case.
“We actually stopped in here one night after they were racing a few years ago and said, ‘why don’t you run us here,’ and we were told, ‘I didn’t think you guys would want to come here.’ I said, ‘we want to come here.’ This place is pretty wicked and pretty gnarly and that’s why we drive non-wing sprint cars; we like gnarly stuff.”
Grant started fourth in the 22-car field which pole sitter Kevin Thomas Jr. had dominion over in the early going, leaving the position jockeying solely for those who trailed him. Grant cleared outside front row starter C.J. Leary on the fifth lap for second while Chris Windom slipped past Leary for the fourth position a circuit later on lap six.
On the ninth lap, Chris Windom positioned himself into the second spot with a turn three slider on Grant, then began to clamp down on race leader Thomas Jr., who had just recently possessed a near two-second advantage over the rest of the field. By lap 11, the entire top-seven in the running order ran nose-to-tail behind Thomas.
With 12 laps down, Windom made a move under Thomas to try to snare the lead. Windom came up a half car length short at the line but continued to grind until opportunity came knocking and pulled ahead of Thomas with a slide job for the lead in turn one mere moments later. Thomas fought back on the bottom, engaging side-by-side with Windom down the back straightway and through turns three and four, but momentum was on Windom’s side as he used the banking up on the topside to drive back past Thomas to lead by a single car length at the stripe.
A single lap later, Grant followed suit and moved up the rung to second-place with a pass on Thomas. USAC National Sprint Car Rookie and USAC Rapid Tire East Coast Sprint Car standout Briggs Danner sliced his way to the third position and was steadily charging when he made a self-pronounced “Rookie mistake,” jumping the turn two cushion and pancaking the guardrail.
Grant suddenly began to close the gap between he and race leader Windom with a little bit of traffic now in play. Windom had been running the top routinely throughout the first 23 laps but made the split decision to enter on the bottom of turns three and four. Grant, in turn, stuck it up top near and rode the fence right into the race lead.
“It was going to be tough to pass anybody and the cushion was getting really high off two, but it wasn’t to the wall yet,” Grant recalled. “So, I started diamonding one and two off, and it was just enough to show Chris a nose up off the bottom and he peeled to the bottom of three and four where we were able to commit back to the curb and circle him.”
Windom’s race, henceforth, went from good to bad to ugly within a half-mile span. Soon after Windom relinquished the lead, Wednesday night’s Bridgeport winner Robert Ballou emerged into the fray and set up his shot at Windom for second. Instead, things went awry, with Ballou tossing a slider toward Windom in turn three when the two made contact, sending Windom airborne and into the outside guardrail. Windom immediately slowed with a flat left rear tire, bringing about the first caution of the evening on lap 25 and ending Windom’s too, for all intents and purposes. Windom returned but finished 15th.
“I want to say sorry to Chris,” Ballou stated. “I ran in there and had too much speed. I was going to knock the fence down and I checked up and, when I checked up, I got in a four-wheel slide, and I slid up. I didn’t see him until he got my right rear. I wouldn’t want to do that to anybody, so I’m sorry for that.”
Meanwhile, under the yellow, Danner, who would’ve assumed third on the restart six laps remaining, was forced to the sidelines when his right rear tire ultimately deflated following contact with the guardrail 11 laps earlier.
On the one, final and only restart with six laps to go, Ballou made his final bids for a second-straight victory. Two successive tries to get past Grant proved unsuccessful for Ballou as he was able to pull alongside Grant on both ends of the racetrack, but was unable to edge ahead, instead, filing into line behind Grant as the laps wound down and the distance between the two growing more substantial.
“We got rolling under that yellow and saw that the curb had gotten pushed all the way to the wall,” Grant noted. “It wasn’t moving anymore. It was kind of powdery up there and it was hard to get a hold of. Once it packs against the wall, it’s firm, so we went ahead and started crashing into that off two to make some drive. I knew we had a really good racecar and I felt really confident once I got clear of Ballou on the restart. He’s so good on these big half-miles when it’s right on the fence. Once I got him cleared, I felt like we were going to be really good.”
Grant disallowed any further challenges by extending the interval between he and Ballou while cementing his possession of a second Eastern Storm victory this week, closing out this one in particular by a 3.061 margin over Ballou, Leary, Thomas and Brady Bacon who rounded out the top-five.
Ballou finished as the runner-up in his Ballou Motorsports/Suburban Subaru – Berks Western Telecom/Triple X/Ott Chevy, which helped extend his Eastern Storm point lead to four points over Grant with two races remaining on Saturday, June 19, at Port Royal Speedway and on Sunday, June 20, at the Bloomsburg Fair Raceway, both of which are in the state of Pennsylvania.
“We were the car to beat until that caution,” Ballou said. “I used my stuff up trying to get there, sliding back and forth with guys. Justin, the last five laps, was incredible. If we didn’t have a caution, I think I could’ve won, but hindsight’s always 20/20.”
C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) finished 3rd for his best series result of the season since winning in the state of Pennsylvania (Path Valley) on April 25 aboard his Michael Motorsports/Kodiak Products – Gray Auto – Valvoline/DRC/Cressman Ford.
“I felt like we were going to be a little better than that,” Leary admitted. “We got kind of stagnant there a couple laps in, lost momentum and Justin slid me. Once I broke my momentum, a couple guys got by me, and we were just riding there for about half of the race. It’s frustrating when you do lose your momentum and there’s nothing you can do about it. That restart really let me regroup and adjust on the shocks a little bit, and we had a great restart getting by Brady and KTJ.”
A tumultuous evening for Jake Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) actually rooted its origins the night before at Selinsgrove after becoming a victim of a heat race flip at Bridgeport. Following Thursday’s qualifying session, Swanson and crew went to work, but missed their heat race while making changes. The team rolled out the backup car for Swanson to join the feature field in the 20th position where he proceeded to carve his way to an impressive 7th place finish to earn himself the KSE Racing Products / Irvin King Hard Charger honors for the night while driving the Team AZ Racing/USW Cat Construction – RSS Industries – CSI – Lucas Oil/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
“We’re still chasing the gremlins from when our crash last night,” Swanson explained. “I can’t say enough about this race team. We missed our heat race, and we didn’t even watch a lap of any of the heat races. We were just thrashing on the thing trying to put it back together. Right before we rolled out, my crew chief, Mike Burkhart, was like, ‘I have no idea what this is, but it’s our best guess.’ I know (the setup is) always going to be pretty close with him. He’s a hell of a mechanic and I just really appreciate driving for him, and I appreciate all the hard work my guys did, Craig (Burkhart), Justin (Grau) and my dad. It was a lot of work, and we almost didn’t make that feature. To come up through like we did and to have the speed like we did, I’m really stoked.”
During Fatheadz Qualifying, Windom collected his 12th career Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifying time with the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Cars, tying him for 39th all-time with Steve Chassey, Elmer George, Rick Hood, Jud Larson, Bill Puterbaugh and Joe Saldana.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: June 17, 2021 – Selinsgrove Speedway – Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania – 1/2-Mile Dirt Track – Eastern Storm
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING: 1. Chris Windom, 19, Hayward-19.506 (New Track Record); 2. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-19.607; 3. Logan Seavey, 5, Baldwin/Fox-19.615; 4. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-19.761; 5. Tanner Thorson, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-19.891; 6. C.J. Leary, 77m, Michael-19.982; 7. Kevin Thomas Jr., 9K, KT-20.109; 8. Alex Bright, 20, Hummer-20.142; 9. Chase Johnson, 22, Goodnight-20.218; 10. Charles Davis Jr., 47, Davis-20.222; 11. Shane Cottle, 39, Hogue-20.224; 12. Carmen Perigo, 21, Stehman-20.364; 13. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-20.391; 14. Steven Drevicki, 19s, DeGre-20.489; 15. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-20.516; 16. Briggs Danner, 5G, Gallagher-20.660; 17. Mark Smith, 3R, Rock Steady-20.669; 18. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-20.690; 19. Paul Nienhiser, 5N, KO-20.690; 20. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-20.753; 21. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-20.894; 22. Isaac Chapple, 52, Chapple-NT; 23. Timmy Buckwalter, 7, LNB-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer to the feature) 1. Briggs Danner, 2. Kevin Thomas Jr., 3. Chris Windom, 4. Justin Grant, 5. Matt Westfall, 6. Charles Davis Jr., 7. Paul Nienhiser. 2:51.334 (New Track Record)
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer to the feature) 1. Tanner Thorson, 2. Shane Cottle, 3. Mark Smith, 4. Brady Bacon, 5. Steven Drevicki, 6. Alex Bright. 2:54.705
INDY METAL FINISHING/INDY RACE PARTS THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer to the feature) 1. Robert Ballou, 2. C.J. Leary, 3. Chase Stockon, 4. Chase Johnson, 5. Carmen Perigo, 6. Brandon Mattox. 2:53.472
FEATURE: (30 laps, 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.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Brady Bacon-1049, 2-Justin Grant-1020, 3-Kevin Thomas Jr.-956, 4-Robert Ballou-942, 5-Chris Windom-890, 6-C.J. Leary-859, 7-Tanner Thorson-809, 8-Jake Swanson-788, 9-Chase Stockon-603, 10-Paul Nienhiser-566.
USAC EASTERN STORM POINTS: 1-Robert Ballou-224, 2-Justin Grant-220, 3-Brady Bacon-214, 4-Kevin Thomas Jr.-190, 5-Chris Windom-173, 6-C.J. Leary-168, 7-Briggs Danner-162, 8-Tanner Thorson-161, 9-Shane Cottle-158, 10-Jake Swanson-143.
OVERALL PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Tanner Thorson-83, 2-Thomas Meseraull-81, 3-Robert Ballou-73, 4-Kevin Thomas Jr.-62, 5-Brady Bacon-60, 6-Chris Windom-52, 7-Justin Grant-44, 8-Buddy Kofoid-41, 9-Logan Seavey-37, 10-Jake Swanson-36.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: June 19, 2021 – Port Royal Speedway – Port Royal, Pennsylvania – 1/2-Mile Dirt Track – Eastern Storm
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
GSP Driving Performance of the Night: C.J. Leary
Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifier: Chris Windom
Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner: Briggs Danner
Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner: Tanner Thorson
Indy Metal Finishing / Indy Race Parts Third Heat Winner: Robert Ballou
KSE Racing Products / Irvin King Hard Charger: Jake Swanson (20th to 7th)
Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher: Matt Westfall
-USAC Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: Lonnie Wheatley