San Tan Valley, Arizona — In a nutshell, the opening night of the 51st “Western World Championships” is a microcosm of the way the 2018 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car season has unfolded for Justin Grant and TOPP Motorsports.
Just when you began to count this pair out, here they are, back with gusto in the autumn of Friday night’s 30-lapper at Arizona Speedway and in the autumn of the racing season.
After relinquishing the lead twice – on lap 7 and lap 18 – Grant didn’t let himself get thrown far from the bull. He grabbed it by the horns and charged back into contention, for the final time with five laps remaining, escaping between Tyler Courtney and the outside turn two wall like a matador side stepping the brunt of a bull’s charge to score his third USAC National Sprint Car feature victory in his last four starts.
It was the Ione, California native’s 11th win with the series, moving him past Tony Stewart on the career wins list and into a tie for 45th alongside Daron Clayton, Greg Leffler and Chase Stockon.
Grant began the race from the pole position, initially crawling the bottom into turn one to get past outside front row starter C.J. Leary for the lead. By the time Grant got to turn three, he went topside as Kevin Thomas, Jr and Damion Gardner gave chase on the bottom.
Thomas dug his way to the lead off the fourth turn on the seventh lap to snare the lead. But his time up front was already fleeting as Grant charged back on the outside off turn two the following lap and slammed the door in turn three to yank the low line away from Thomas.
Grant shuffled his line, going to the shelf between turns one and two and skimming the bottom of three and four, searching the 3/8-mile dirt oval for any potential gains while Thomas and Gardner see-sawed the runner-up spot.
At the halfway mark, Logan Williams got sideways between turns one and two as the front runners bore down on him. While Williams was able to right his ship, Gardner and Thomas got bogged up just enough that allowed fourth-running Courtney to capitalize and skedaddle his way around both from fourth to second in one fell swoop off turn four. Moments later, seventh-running Jason McDougal was found turned around in turn two to bring out the feature’s lone stoppage.
On the ensuing restart, Courtney and Gardner both stuck their hands in the cookie jar between turns one and two, racing three-wide with leader Grant momentarily before Grant was able to pop his way out of the crowd and escape with the lead.
A lap later, though, the story would take a turn as Courtney used a massive run off the cushion in turn four to blast past Grant like his shoes were stuck in mud.
However, stories have chapters. And Grant was more than eager to write a different ending than one might have suspected based on Courtney’s 10 victories this year. But, Grant had no cliffhanger or sequel in mind. This one was going to have a concise, fairytale ending.
Grant never let Courtney stray too far as they both religiously ripped the topside. Once traffic came into play, Courtney came off the top to split between the lapped cars of Danny Faria, Jr. and Tye Mihocko between turns three and four, which allowed Grant to draw nearer. Courtney tried the 7/10 split again in turn one while Grant nailed his boots up top.
As Courtney slid across the track toward the turn two wall on the 26th lap, Grant had two choices: lift and relent the position or gas it up and go like hell. He chose the latter and escaped with the lead with roughly the width of a dime to spare between he and contact.
Courtney took one final shot at Grant on the final lap with a slider into turn one. Grant stamped the throttle, banging off the turn two concrete as he jetted back around Courtney one final time to bring home a 0.892 second victory over Courtney, Gardner, Chris Windom and Thomas.
Grant was an user of the entire racetrack on this night, from the bottom to the top, searching and scouring the land like Amerigo Vespucci for 30 laps. Once he got passed just after halfway, he found the fast way around, but all he needed was a little bit of daylight that he could use to get by Courtney and conquer the land they call victory lane.
“We were leading early and then went to the bottom,” Grant recalled. “On tracks like this, you end up being a sitting duck when you’re the leader and the track is moving around. Once (Courtney) got by us, I jumped up there behind him and he left us half a hole over there and I wasn’t planning on losing this race tonight! This 4 car has been amazing and I’m having a blast. I’ve won a lot of races against the concrete and on the fence. I don’t know if I’ve ever run one that hard on the concrete and hit it quite that many times.”
Unlike Grant, Indianapolis, Indiana’s Courtney was simultaneously racing for a feature win as well as a series title. While he did gain six points on Thomas with four races remaining on the National trail, he felt like this was one he let slip away.
“I threw one away tonight,” Courtney admitted. “I got a little impatient there in traffic and wasted a lot of time with lapped cars. You just can’t make mistakes like that when you’re racing against guys that are at the top of their game.”
A pair of title races were in play tonight. The National Sprint points have tightened up slightly with Thomas now holding a 28-point lead over Courtney with Windom 60 markers behind the leader. The CRA standings have shrunk as well with Brody Roa holding the edge by nine points over Gardner.
Contingency award winners Friday night at Arizona Speedway were Brody Roa (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner & KSE Racing Products Hard Charger), Chris Windom (Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner), R.J. Johnson (Chalk Stix Third Heat Winner), Dave Darland (Indy Race Parts Fourth Heat Winner), Thomas Meseraull (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher) and Jake Swanson (Roger & Barb Tapy 13th Fastest Qualifier).
-USAC Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: Allen Mollenkopf