Perris, California -- For better or worse, Justin Grant and TOPP Motorsports have learned how to be resilient this year.
They've successfully overcome their season-long, mountainous valley of struggles that kept them winless through their first 33 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car starts of 2018.
And, on Thursday night, the pair overcame humble beginnings that forced them to start from the fifth row in the A-Main for the opener for the 23rd annual Budweiser "Oval Nationals" presented by All Coast Construction at Perris Auto Speedway.
There was no head-hanging with this bunch as they went to work with Grant methodically picking his way through the field and, with two laps remaining, came to a fork in the middle of the road. So, he took it.
After a brief tussle with Tyler Courtney, Ione, California's Grant grabbed the lead in late-race fashion in much the same manner as he did in the "Western World" opener one week ago to score his fourth series win in the past six races.
In each of those previous three triumphs, he started from the front row. This one, however, feature the extra element of traffic to wade through on the way to the front.
"We started so far in the back, I got to see it all," Grant said. "I kind of buried these guys tonight. I didn't qualify well, and we weren't very good in the heat race. They made some changes, got us dialed in and this thing was a rocket ship in the feature."
Granted started 10th in the 26-car field, finding his rhythm early on as last year's "Ovals" opening night winner Chase Stockon drove off to the lead after narrowly squeezing around Brady Bacon on the back straight for the point on the first of 30 circuits.
The night's only red flag came on the fourth lap when C.J. Leary, Grant and Thomas Meseraull got stacked up off turn two while running 9th-10th-11th. Meseraull ramped over the back end of Grant and double barrel-rolled before walking away uninjured.
Through the middle stages, it appeared to be Courtney's show once again as he slid Damion Gardner for second on the eighth lap, then began his pursuit of Stockon. Courtney presented his presence in turn three on the 12th lap, giving a sneak peak of his front bumper to Stockon who clung to the lead for just one more half a trip around the PAS. Courtney came right back at Stockon in turn one on lap 13 and slid to the front with ease and appeared to be gonzo, darting off to a 2.5-second lead past the midway point when the yellow fell for a flat left rear by Cody Williams.
At that point, most eyes were on Courtney at the top of the heap while Grant scrapped his way from seventh to second in succession, passing one car each lap from lap 12 through 17 as he swiftly bolted by Stockon in turn three following the lap 17 restart.
Grant closed rapidly toward Courtney who was seeking to extend his series-leading win tally to 12 this season. Grant gained ground, then lost some, as he hustled his ride around the half-mile, sometimes tapping the wall and banging the cushion as he laid it on the line with no championship implications like he did last year and, thus, had practically nothing to lose.
Once a strip of rubber began to appear on the surface in the late stages, it looked to be lights out for Grant's opportunities. For it was easier to catch than it was to pass at the moment. With three to go, though, the car of Tommy Malcolm bounced off the turn two wall. As he was gathering it up, Courtney and Grant quickly swarmed. Courtney followed Malcolm into turn three, but Grant went right for the jugular, diving to the bottom and sliding wheel-to-wheel with Courtney when the two made contact - Grant's right rear and Courtney's left rear - which sent Courtney scooting up to the outside wall before he grabbed the wheel, punched the gas and motored onward, albeit in the runner-up position now.
-USAC Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: Rich Forman