By Richie Murray
Haubstadt, Indiana (April 15, 2023)………Once upon a time, Justin Grant routinely struggled each time he traveled down to the southwestern edge of Indiana, home of Tri-State Speedway.
Now, those dog days are over, and those dog days are done. Convincingly and affirmatively, he was an absolute machine during Saturday night’s 10th running of the Spring Showdown.
Like a train on a track, the Ione, Calif. native was on rails from start to finish, sweeping the entirety of evening’s program featuring the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship and the Midwest Sprint Car Series.
Grant set the tone from the outset, qualifying the fastest in the 35-car field, then followed up with an impressive sixth to first drive to win his heat race. To cap off a perfect night, he again powered from sixth to first during the first 11 laps of the 30-lap feature, then fended off a hard-charging Kevin Thomas Jr. to capture his first victory of the year aboard the TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Bow Foundation – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy.
The “sweeping” performance by Grant was the first of his career and was the first of the USAC season. Jake Swanson had been the most recent individual to achieve the same feat in October of 2022 at Arizona’s Cocopah Speedway during the Western World Championships.
Impressively, Grant’s sweep was the first such performance on a 1/4-mile dirt track with the USAC National Sprint Cars since Kevin Thomas (no relation to Jr.) did the same 27 years ago in 1996 at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway. In the entirety of USAC’s 68-year history, there have only been three USAC Sprint Car sweeps on a 1/4-mile track with the first of its kind coming in 1995 at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway and orchestrated by Jack Hewitt.
Grant now owns two career USAC Sprint victories at Tri-State with the first coming during the summer of 2021. Now, he seemingly has the place figured out after heeding the advice of his late father-in-law Bubby Jones in terms of torsion bar selection, shock settings, and executing the feat in a chassis built to Ol Bub’s specifications. All of those aspects converged to help Grant become a first-time Spring Showdown victor.
It’s been a long way climb to the top of the ladder of success at Tri-State for Grant since those early days of his career, but he’s certainly now among the upper crust at The Class Track.
“(Tri-State Speedway promoter) Tom (Helfrich) always laughs every time I pull down here, saying, ‘remember, you used to hate it here.’ I do remember, vividly. I’ve really come to love this place and I just have a lot of fun coming here. You don’t hardly have to work on your racecar all night and that’s easy on us. We just keep dumping fuel in it and keep racing.”
Grant’s 35th career USAC National Sprint Car feature victory elevated him into a three-way tie for 13th place on the all-time list alongside Jon Stanbrough and Rich Vogler. The performance also thrusted the reigning series championship into the top spot as the new point leader.
Funny enough, it seemed as if there was an omen of sorts for Grant on this particular night. In the first three points races of the USAC National Sprint Car season leading into Tri-State, Grant had finished a consistent 4th, 4th and 4th. Grant, the driver of car number 4, entered race number four hoping to add a first 1st to the equation; that was “four” sure.
Initially, four was the hot number for one of the pre-race favorites. The most recent Tri-State USAC Sprint winner, Jadon Rogers, struck an impressive chord after starting from the outside of the second row. He split between Emerson Axsom and Kevin Thomas Jr. to swipe second, then carried a tremendous drive down the back straightaway and powered past Brady Bacon on the inside to take over the race lead. Rogers was piloting Jeremy Ottinger’s No. 4J on this evening after his Baldwin-Fox Racing was damaged during a qualifying flip the previous night at Bloomington.
Rogers quickly constructed a half-straightaway advantage over the field while, simultaneously, Grant was carving a path from his outside row three starting spot, charging past both Thomas and Bacon on lap five to pull his way into the second position.
The lone yellow flag of the feature arrived seven laps into the contest, when 16th running Aric Gentry spun to a stop in turn four. Rogers was up 1.507 seconds before the yellow, but with the advantage completely dissipated due to the caution, Grant was slotted behind Rogers for the restart, then stalked Rogers relentlessly thereafter before lunging under Rogers to grab the lead between turns one and two on the 11th circuit.
Meanwhile, Thomas was making hay in his pursuit to the front, taking second from Rogers just past the halfway mark and then began his approach on Grant who was long gone ahead of the field with the benefit of a 2.6 second lead. However, the great equalizer is traffic, and soon, Grant found himself right smack dab in the middle of it as Thomas ultimately closed to within a half car length of Grant’s rear bumper with just five laps remaining.
“I got kind of comfortable there and got to riding, and I think the bottom started slowing down,” Grant recalled. “With like five or six (laps) to go, I was kind of thinking that I probably needed to move up a lane. But we were so close to the end, and I also felt like we were still hooking the bottom pretty good, so I figured I’d at least wait until I hear somebody out there.”
Soon, somebody was there, and that somebody was Kevin Thomas Jr. who was in position to make a winning move on the final lap.
“There, the last couple of laps, all of a sudden I could hear a motor that sounding like it was running a little harder than the guys I had been lapping,” Grant noticed. “I figured we were starting to get some pressure. Lapped traffic was really, really thick but they were also pretty good cars, so it was hard to dispose of them right away and it’d take me a lap or two sometimes to stay off a guy’s left rear and get by him.”
In turns three and four on the 30th and final lap, Thomas used a drive and his momentum appeared that it may very well lead him past Grant at the line. Yet, Grant wasn’t about to let that happen to himself with such ease as he drifted off the bottom of turn four to the top of the front straight, thus cutting off the circulation of Thomas’ forward momentum toward the line.
Grant’s car length margin of victory saw him 0.169 seconds ahead of Thomas at the stripe with Kyle Cummins grabbing third, Rogers fourth and Bacon fifth.
Furthermore, in addition to his perfect night, Grant moved up another level on the USAC National Sprint Car career fast qualifier list. At Tri-State, he notched the 31st of his career, elevating him to 12th all-time ahead of 1974 and 1976 series champ Pancho Carter and now finds himself tied with Sheldon Kinser who captured USAC Sprint titles in 1977-81-82.
Kevin Thomas Jr. (Cullman, Ala.) is the only two-time winner in the history of the Spring Showdown in 2013 and 2018. On Saturday night, he very nearly became the first three-time winner of the race in his Michael Dutcher Motorsports/Lifestyle Homes – Griffin’s Propane – Parallax/Maxim/Jackson Chevy. Nonetheless, it was still KTJ’s best finish of the USAC National Sprint Car season to this point.
“We struggled there a little bit at the beginning,” Thomas admitted. “(The engine) stumbled in the middle of the corner because we were turning 8500 RPM on the front stretch then down to 3500. So, we’ve got a little bit of a stumble with that and that hurt me at the start. I went back to fourth or fifth, but once we got wound up, I felt like we were pretty good if not a little bit better than Justin. I know he had a lot of lapped traffic to deal with, but I felt good there at the end. I’m happy to get back up here on the podium. We’ve been working extremely hard on it since Florida, and I feel like we’ve got a good package and it’s something we can continuously build off of.”
For Kyle Cummins, it was a stark contrast from Friday at Bloomington to Saturday at Tri-State. The night before, Cummins (Princeton, Ind.) pulled off prior to the race’s end with a 20th place result at Bloomington. Armed with a new car for Tri-State, the 2021 Spring Showdown winner returned to form, charging from the seventh starting spot to finish third in his Rock Steady Racing/Avanti Windows & Doors – Tim Mason ReMax/Mach-1/Kistler Chevy.
“I thought the bottom was going to be good the whole night, so that’s what we set up for,” Cummins explained. “It took a little bit to get it scotched up and the track really came back after they did a quick rework. With where we started, I’m happy with where we finished. It seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher, and the competition is getting better and better here. There’s a handful of people who could win on any night. I’ve got to give it up for my team after last night and just having a fluke thing with the motor shutting off, an electrical thing. Then we busted our butt to get this car ready for tonight and we got it done.”
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: April 15, 2023 – Tri-State Speedway – Haubstadt, Indiana – 1/4-Mile Dirt Track – Spring Showdown – Co-Sanctioned by the Midwest Sprint Car Series
QUALIFYING: 1. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-13.160; 2. Daison Pursley, 5p, KO-13.296; 3. Jadon Rogers, 4J, Ottinger-13.424; 4. Emerson Axsom, 47BC, Clauson Marshall-13.526; 5. Kevin Thomas Jr., 17GP, Dutcher-13.539; 6. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-13.631; 7. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-13.654; 8. C.J. Leary, 15x, BGE Dougherty-13.673; 9. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-13.733; 10. Dustin Beck, 75, Hensen/Rupp-13.740; 11. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-13.742; 12. J.J. Hughes, 76, Hughes-13.778; 13. Aric Gentry, 10, Gentry-13.785; 14. Carson Garrett, 15, BGE Dougherty-13.804; 15. Mitchel Moles, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-13.909; 16. Critter Malone, 7, Seven-13.914; 17. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-13.966; 18. Kendall Ruble, 17, Ruble-13.989; 19. Logan Seavey, 2B, 2B Racing-13.994; 20. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-14.013; 21. Kayla Roell, 5K, KO-14.039; 22. Brady Short, 61m, Edwards-14.115; 23. Alec Sipes, 99, Sipes-14.125; 24. Collin Ambrose, 36, Ambrose-14.128; 25. Donny Brackett, 4B, Brackett-14.246; 26. Adyn Schmidt, 38, Williams-14.449; 27. Sam Scott, 7s, Scott-14.540; 28. Dalton Stevens, 99x, Stevens-14.573; 29. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-14.595; 30. Stan Beadles, 84, Beadles-14.644; 31. Cindy Chambers, 18c, DC-14.925; 32. Kurt Gross, 71x, Hensen/Rupp-15.068; 33. Nathan Seale, 1s, Seale-15.197; 34. Jeff Pritchett, 2J, Nine-One-One-15.575; 35. Raymond Holden, 2R, Holden-15.686.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Justin Grant, 2. Aric Gentry, 3. Kevin Thomas Jr., 4. Jake Swanson, 5. Matt Westfall, 6. Donny Brackett, 7. Kayla Roell, 8. Brandon Mattox, 9. Nathan Seale. NT
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Brady Short, 2. Kendall Ruble, 3. Brady Bacon, 4. Daison Pursley, 5. Dustin Beck, 6. Adyn Schmidt, 7. Carson Garrett, 8. Stan Beadles, 9. Jeff Pritchett. NT
ROD END SUPPLY THIRD HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Kyle Cummins, 2. Jadon Rogers, 3. Logan Seavey, 4. Mitchel Moles, 5. Chase Stockon, 6. Sam Scott, 7. Alec Sipes, 8. Cindy Chambers, 9. Raymond Holden. NT
T.J. FORGED FOURTH HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Robert Ballou, 2. C.J. Leary, 3. Emerson Axsom, 4. J.J. Hughes, 5. Critter Malone, 6. Collin Ambrose, 7. Kurt Gross, 8. Dalton Stevens. NT
ELLIOTT’S CUSTOM TRAILERS & CARTS SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer to the feature) 1. Carson Garrett, 2. Dustin Beck, 3. Chase Stockon, 4. Donny Brackett, 5. Matt Westfall, 6. Kurt Gross, 7. Critter Malone, 8. Collin Ambrose, 9. Adyn Schmidt, 10. Brandon Mattox, 11. Sam Scott, 12. Dalton Stevens, 13. Stan Beadles, 14. Cindy Chambers, 15. Alec Sipes, 16. Kayla Roell, 17. Jeff Pritchett, 18. Nathan Seale, 19. Raymond Holden. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (6), 2. Kevin Thomas Jr. (2), 3. Kyle Cummins (7), 4. Jadon Rogers (4), 5. Brady Bacon (1), 6. Emerson Axsom (3), 7. Carson Garrett (16), 8. Brady Short (9), 9. Robert Ballou (8), 10. Chase Stockon (10), 11. C.J. Leary (11), 12. Daison Pursley (5), 13. Logan Seavey (20), 14. J.J. Hughes (14), 15. Matt Westfall (18), 16. Mitchel Moles (17), 17. Donny Brackett (21), 18. Kendall Ruble (19), 19. Dustin Beck (13), 20. Jake Swanson (12), 21. Aric Gentry (15), 22. Sam Scott (24-M), 23. Kurt Gross (22), 24. Brandon Mattox (23-U). NT
(U) represents a USAC provisional starter. (M) represents an MSCS provisional starter.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-10 Jadon Rogers, Laps 11-30 Justin Grant.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Justin Grant-303, 2-C.J. Leary-278, 3-Emerson Axsom-270, 4-Brady Bacon-266, 5-Kyle Cummins-250, 6-Kevin Thomas Jr.-243, 7-Chase Stockon-234, 8-Logan Seavey-225, 9-Matt Westfall-206, 10-Jake Swanson-202.
OVERALL PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Carson Garrett-15, 2-Justin Grant-12, 3-Robert Ballou-12, 4-Kevin Thomas Jr.-11, 5-Logan Seavey-11, 6-Matt Westfall-11, 7-Kyle Cummins-10, 8-Emerson Axsom-8, 9-Jake Swanson-8, 10-Jadon Rogers-8.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: April 26, 2023 – Texarkana 67 Speedway – Texarkana, Arkansas – 1/4-Mile Dirt Track
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
Dirt Draft Hot Laps Fastest Driver: Jadon Rogers (13.304)
Fast Qualifier: Justin Grant (13.160)
Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner: Justin Grant
Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner: Brady Short
Rod End Supply Third Heat Winner: Kyle Cummins
T.J. Forged Fourth Heat Winner: Robert Ballou
Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts Semi Winner: Carson Garrett
Hard Charger: Carson Garrett (16th to 7th)