By Richie Murray
Terre Haute, Indiana (April 10, 2019)………Justin Grant has seen it all at the Terre Haute Action Track, host of this Sunday’s 19th running of the Fatheadz Eyewear “Sumar Classic” for the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series.
He’s been quick time and he’s led an astounding number of laps. He’s even flipped out of the ballpark in turn one.
However, until last Spring’s “Sumar Classic” Silver Crown 100-lapper, he had not reached victory lane in USAC National competition at the famed half-mile dirt oval.
In 2016, the Ione, Calif. native came heartbreakingly close, starting from the pole and holding dominance at the front for the first 93 laps. But, a slight mishap off turn four with seven laps remaining cost him a shot at victory as C.J. Leary drove to his first career win.
Fast forward to 2018, and with a couple more years of experience under the belt and on a similar track surface he faced that afternoon, Grant was determined to not let the past repeat itself on his way to Terre Haute glory.
With more experience in the “big cars” under his belt, Grant knew he had to devise a game plan that would result in a victory, but with a surging, four-time series champ in Kody Swanson erasing the gap, that’s easier said than done. Grant wasn’t going to let this one get away.
“You have to keep your eye on the rubber or have your spotter keeping an eye on the rubber for you,” Grant detailed. “A couple years ago here, I was just concentrating on what I was doing, banging the fence and running as hard as I could. As I’ve gotten more comfortable in the Crown cars, I worry as much, or more, about what other guys are doing behind me and make sure to get to the rubber before somebody drives by.”
From his third starting spot, Grant held down the fort near the front as polesitter Jerry Coons, Jr. and C.J. Leary swapped the top spot for the first third of the event.
Leary rode into the western Indiana sunset with the advantage until lap 36 when Grant caught Leary in lapped traffic and outlasted him down the back straightaway in a side-by-side battle similar to the duels at the adjacent Action Dragway before sliding back up to the berm where he would stand pat until nearly three-quarters of the event were in the books.
On lap 70, Shane Cottle dueled with Grant as the two swapped the top spot four times over the span of a lap and a half. Cottle was credited with leading the lap before each exchanged their race-leading surge. Grant made the ultimate, lasting move, ducking down to the inside of Cottle off turn two to recapture the lead.
By lap 77, a date with the Sumar Classic trophy appeared to be slipping through his grasp yet again as a surging Kody Swanson, the 2014 “Sumar” winner who was relegated to the 18th starting position following an engine change prior to qualifying, was in position to pounce for the lead, ringing around the outside of both Cottle and Grant in a single move between turns three and four.
However, with just 16 laps remaining, the now third-running Cottle took a chance on a two-for-one deal entering the third turn. In one fell swoop, Cottle breezed by Grant on the inside, then pulled along the inside of Swanson on the inner guardrail. The two touched wheels, sending both into 360-degree spin-cycles. Cottle’s race came to an end backwards near the outside wall while Swanson managed to continue, albeit with a flat left rear tire, forcing him to make a pit stop for new rubber and restart from the tail of the field.
That put Grant back into position at the front of the field once racing resumed where he set off toward a comfortable margin with a lead of nearly three seconds while Swanson mounted a valiant charge to the front, threading the needle to slip past Tyler Courtney with seven laps to go for third in turn three, then motoring past Leary with an outside pass a lap later. With Swanson’s charge, the message was sent forth to Grant that this was no time to dawdle, this was ‘go time.’
“My spotter let me know that Swanson was back to P2 and that, whatever we had left, we needed to use it now,” Grant exclaimed. “We saved everything as best we could up to that point. When he gave me the call, that’s when we went.”
It’s a chess game trying to save, yet still be fast throughout a 100-lap race on the dirt that, on this day, included variables such as the sun setting early on in the race and the ever-changing track conditions throughout the event.
The interval between Grant and Swanson was rapidly closing in the final laps as lapped traffic loomed. It’s one thing to navigate your way through gridlock with ease and another to catch them at exactly the right spot without interruption to your rhythm, which Grant executed with the precision of an X-Acto knife as he encountered the lapped cars of Neil Shepherd and Mike Haggenbottom in turn one.
“You have to catch them right,” Grant said point blank. “You don’t want to waste any time and you can’t let them break your momentum because somebody like Kody behind you will capitalize. You try to get through them as fast as you can and not let them break your stride and hope the guys behind you get caught up a little bit with them.”
“I figured if I got caught behind them in (turns) one and two, I was going to be pretty well toast or, at least, allow Kody a good shot at it,” Grant admitted. “I knew I needed to get by them there. I wasn’t real sure where they were going to go, though. I thought about splitting them and staying in the rubber, but the inside car kind of moved up a little bit. Fortunately, I had enough of a run to where I was able to get down in the dust and get by them.”
Grant flawlessly finished out the final lap to take his second career Silver Crown win by 1.33 seconds over KSE Racing Products Hard Charger Kody Swanson and pole sitter Tyler Courtney, who charged all the way from 22nd after an early race spin. Chris Windom was fourth after jumping into Bill Rose’s car following mechanical trouble in his regular Gene Nolen Racing ride while Leary rounded out the top-five.
Grant is basically playing with house money right now. He’s experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in recent times at the “Sumar” and is game for anything that is thrown his way. He’s proven that time and time again, and perhaps, he could erase the long-running streak of a new “Sumar Classic” winner each year since 1999 with a victory this Sunday.
Pits open at 1pm Eastern on Sunday with grandstands opening at 2pm, an open pit party from 2-3:15pm, drivers meeting at 3:30pm, practice at 4:30pm, Fatheadz Eyewear Qualifying at 5:30pm and racing at 6:30pm.
Adult general admission tickets are $25, infield tickets $15 and kids 11 and under FREE. Pit passes are $30 for USAC/UMP members and $35 for non-members.
The “Sumar Classic” can be watched LIVE on http://www.FloRacing.com/.