By Richie Murray
Terre Haute, Indiana (July 26, 2023)………You can count on two hands the number of drivers who have had the good fortune of earning at least 40 career USAC National Sprint Car feature victories.
On Wednesday night at the Terre Haute Action Track, Justin Grant became the 10th individual to join the exclusive 40-win club in USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship competition, a highwater mark reached by a select few over the course of the 68-year history of the series.
The Ione, Calif. native was the class of the field in the 30-lap Don Smith Classic feature which served as round five of USAC NOS Energy Drink Indiana Sprint Week Presented By Honest Abe Roofing, prospering through several challenges levied by Brady Bacon and Jake Swanson before taking over for good on lap 10 in a race that featured as many twists and turns as a ride at Six Flags.
Fittingly, Grant now possesses a series-leading six flags of the checkered variety throughout the USAC National Sprint Car season. His latest Terre Haute victory made him just the fifth driver in series history to earn six or more wins in three consecutive seasons, joining Dave Darland (2012-14), Bryan Clauson (2012-14), Tracy Hines (1999-2001) and Gary Bettenhausen (1968-70), the man who Grant tied for ninth all-time on USAC’s all-time National Sprint Car win list.
Furthermore, Grant came into the event tied with Bacon for the Indiana Sprint Week championship lead but exited the stage with an eight-point edge three races from the finish line as he attempts to repeat his crown in the eight-race Hoosier State series aboard his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Bow Foundation – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy.
Grant’s third win of the week thus far has moved him up to fifth all-time in terms of career Indiana Sprint Week victories with eight, trailing only Dave Darland (20), Jon Stanbrough (16), Cory Kruseman (12) and J.J. Yeley (9).
The initial attempt at a green flag was waved off when it was deemed that pole sitter Jake Swanson jumped the start. A new rule put into place for 2023 penalized Swanson one row and moved inside second row starter Grant to the outside of the front row. However, it was new pole starter Bacon who pounced early to grab the lead on lap one.
Major trouble came on lap two when 18th running Joey Amantea flipped wildly at the entry to turn one after already advancing four positions by the completion of lap one. The trailing Ricky Lewis narrowly avoided contact with Amantea and spun backwards to a stop against the outside guardrail. Amantea ultimately walked away from the incident.
The early penalization didn’t deter Swanson as he swooped into the lead on the lap two restart with a major run off turn two past Bacon. Third-running Grant attempted to slide Swanson in turn three but split the difference and slotted into second. Grant tried again in turn three on lap four, sliding across the nose of Swanson, who was prepared and reacted accordingly by cutting back under to retake the lead.
On the lap 10 restart following seventh-running Logan Seavey’s stoppage for a new right rear tire, Grant found his way to the lead, changing his plan of execution by blowing around the outside of Swanson for the top spot on the back straight.
While Swanson and Bacon traded barbs back-and-forth for the runner-spot as the race pressed through the midway point, Grant capitalized and ran his lead up to a 2.314 second margin until Seavey once again slowed to a stop with issues with his right rear, this time the culprit was a mud-packed wheel. The crew cleared the mud out and returned him to the action where he managed to crack 10th place at the checkered.
Grant was just about to hit lapped traffic at the time of the yellow, but instead, the caution bunched up the field for a restart with 13 laps remaining. That’s where Swanson made a sudden burst to run alongside Grant for the lead on the lap 18 restart, but Grant successfully fended off the challenge. Swanson’s misfire at Grant opened the door for Bacon to close in and overtake Swanson for the second spot in turn one on lap 19.
On lap 24, Grant now had company with Bacon hot on his trail just three car lengths behind when trouble nearly enveloped Grant with a major Huffy bike on the turn two cushion. Mere moments later, the same exact spot caught third-running Swanson who snagged the cush and barrel rolled multiple times before coming to a rest. Swanson climbed out and walked away but was done for the evening after leading eight laps.
After very nearly junking it, so to speak, it was at that point that Grant admittedly needed a little guidance and reassurance to settle down during the red flag period, a moment in which Grant felt relieved in more ways than one.
“I was starting to make mistakes, especially down in turns one and two,” Grant recalled. “I knew I had a little more in the tank if I needed it in three and four, but I was maybe running the entry into one and two too hard. I would actually get on top of the curb, then it grabbed the floor pan and tried to turn me over. Under that red, (crew chief Jeff Walker) came out, and he’s like, ‘buddy, calm down. We’re fine. As long as we don’t make any mistakes, we’re not going to lose this race. Just settle down.’”
Grant’s reassurance was challenged immediately when Bacon attempted to slide Grant for the lead on the lap 24 restart, but Grant made a narrow escape around the outside of turn two to maintain his stranglehold on the position. Bacon’s maneuver turned out to be to the benefit of Kevin Thomas Jr. who drifted by Bacon for second place a half lap later in turns three and four.
Bacon nearly found complete disaster in turns one and two on lap 25, getting all but the right front tire off the ground before landing back on all fours, which sent him free-falling all the way back to eighth. Miraculously, Bacon jumped back on the horse and was able to make up four of those spots in the final laps to bring it home fourth.
In the end, however, it was all Grant who widened his lead to 4.898 seconds by the time he hit the finish line for an $8,000 prize ahead of Kevin Thomas Jr., C.J. Leary, Brady Bacon and Emerson Axsom.
With that said, the wildest moment of the race didn’t happen until after the winner had crossed the finish line. Running seventh as he came off the fourth and final turn with the checkered flag in sight, Robert Ballou’s car suddenly veered hard left without warning. Just after crossing the stripe, Ballou’s car slammed the inside wall, then somersaulted violently. Ballou climbed out immediately, but still came out with a ninth-place result and a severely damaged machine after early setting the fastest time in both Dirt Draft Hot Laps and Honest Abe Roofing Qualifying before winning Simpson Race Products Heat One.
Back to Grant, who reconnected with famed car owner and wrench, Jeff Walker, beginning with the second weekend of July. Since then, the two have clicked remarkably well, and now find themselves atop the Indiana Sprint Week points. It was the Walker connection that Grant had been intertwined with during his introduction to sprint cars all those years ago.
“J-Dub and I working together again is so much fun,” Grant said. “Everything I know about sprint cars started with J-Dub. We speak the same language and that’s so huge. I trust him, and the car is fantastic almost every night. We’ve had some really good racecars, and we’re just having a ton of fun.”
It was about as technical of a Terre Haute surface that Grant’s ever seen and admitted that it was certainly on the tricky side this time around. But a half-mile dirt oval is akin to a home for Grant who has won three of the seven half-mile USAC Sprint Car events held thus far in 2023. In fact, 14 of his 40 career series wins have come on the halves, and it’s a place where the 32-year-old feels that as the speeds rise, everything else seemingly slows down.
“I think they’re just big enough and things happen slow enough – and I’m old – and it slows everything down enough that I’m just more comfortable,” Grant relayed. “I’ve done this a long time and the speed doesn’t really bother me. It’s just a bit slower and a bit more open, and you’ve got more time to make things happen. It’s almost easier to pass guys when they make mistakes.”
Kevin Thomas Jr. put together his best run in Dwight Cheney’s No. 42 since joining the team last month. On this night at Terre Haute, the Cullman, Ala. native raced from his seventh starting position to finish second in his Cheney Racing/Racing Optics – Native Spirits Tequila – SteelCo USA – CCR Sports/DRC/Ott Chevy.
C.J. Leary recovered to round out the podium after suffering a broken left shock that knocked him out of his heat race to begin the night. The Greenfield, Ind. racer got back on track with a semi-feature win, then charged from eighth to finish third in the feature at the wheel of his BGE Dougherty Motorsports/Altoz – Hornbeck Concrete – Highsmith Guns – Elliott’s/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
Shane Cottle (Kansas, Ill.) once again earned J & J Trucking Hard Charger honors for the fourth time in five nights thus far throughout Indiana Sprint Week. At Terre Haute, he advanced from his 17th starting spot to finish seventh and has now recorded an astonishing 52 total passes for position during the week.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: July 26, 2023 – Terre Haute Action Track – Terre Haute, Indiana – 1/2-Mile Dirt Track – 36th Annual USAC NOS Energy Drink Indiana Sprint Week Presented by Honest Abe Roofing – Don Smith Classic
HONEST ABE ROOFING QUALIFYING: 1. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-20.289; 2. Mitchel Moles, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-20.372; 3. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-20.541; 4. C.J. Leary, 15x, BGE Dougherty-20.549; 5. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-20.626; 6. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-20.710; 7. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-20.749; 8. Carson Garrett, 15, BGE Dougherty-20.847; 9. Emerson Axsom, 47BC, Clauson Marshall Newman-21.075; 10. Tye Mihocko, 5, Wilson-21.081; 11. Briggs Danner, 39, Hogue-21.106; 12. Kevin Thomas Jr., 42, Cheney-21.114; 13. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-21.238; 14. Logan Seavey, 2B, 2B Racing-21.249; 15. Charles Davis Jr., 47, Davis-21.251; 16. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-21.272; 17. Sterling Cling, 34, Cling-21.353; 18. Shane Cottle, 2E, Epperson-21.401; 19. Travis Thompson, 7, Thompson-21.411; 20. Daison Pursley, 5p, KO-21.422; 21. Ricky Lewis, 41, Brown-21.492; 22. Justin Zimmerman, 1, D-Up-21.584; 23. Eddie Tafoya Jr., 51T, Tafoya-21.588; 24. Max Adams, 17GP, Dutcher-21.650; 25. Travis Millar, 93AU, Millar-21.705; 26. Dalton Stevens, 99x, Stevens-21.799; 27. Braxton Cummings, 71B, Cummings-21.801; 28. Hunter Maddox, 24m, Maddox-21.823; 29. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-21.848; 30. Geoff Ensign, 17, On The Gass-21.868; 31. Brian Ruhlman, 49, Ruhlman-22.065; 32. Joey Amantea, 88J, Amantea-22.129; 33. Logan Calderwood, 6, Calderwood-22.218; 34. Troy Carey, 45N, Carey-22.394.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Robert Ballou, 2. Sterling Cling, 3. Emerson Axsom, 4. Justin Grant, 5. Chase Stockon, 6. Ricky Lewis, 7. Travis Millar, 8. Logan Calderwood, 9. Matt Westfall. NT
ROD END SUPPLY SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Mitchel Moles, 2. Brady Bacon, 3. Shane Cottle, 4. Tye Mihocko, 5. Justin Zimmerman, 6. Geoff Ensign, 7. Dalton Stevens, 8. Troy Carey, 9. Logan Seavey. 2:50.42
T.J. FORGED THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Kyle Cummins, 2. Jake Swanson, 3. Briggs Danner, 4. Eddie Tafoya Jr., 5. Travis Thompson, 6. Charles Davis Jr., 7. Braxton Cummings. 2:52.95
CAR IQ FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr., 2. Daison Pursley, 3. Carson Garrett, 4. Joey Amantea, 5. Brandon Mattox, 6. Max Adams, 7. Hunter Maddox, 8. C.J. Leary. NT
ELLIOTT’S CUSTOM TRAILERS & CARTS SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer to the feature) 1. C.J. Leary, 2. Logan Seavey, 3. Ricky Lewis, 4. Brandon Mattox, 5. Charles Davis Jr., 6. Chase Stockon, 7. Justin Zimmerman, 8. Dalton Stevens, 9. Matt Westfall, 10. Travis Millar, 11. Braxton Cummings, 12. Max Adams, 13. Hunter Maddox, 14. Logan Calderwood, 15. Troy Carey, 16. Travis Thompson. 4:19.96
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Justin Grant (3), 2. Kevin Thomas Jr. (7), 3. C.J. Leary (8), 4. Brady Bacon (2), 5. Emerson Axsom (10), 6. Kyle Cummins (4), 7. Shane Cottle (17), 8. Mitchel Moles (5), 9. Robert Ballou (6), 10. Logan Seavey (13), 11. Matt Westfall (22-P), 12. Daison Pursley (18), 13. Carson Garrett (9), 14. Tye Mihocko (11), 15. Charles Davis Jr. (14), 16. Sterling Cling (16), 17. Ricky Lewis (23), 18. Chase Stockon (20), 19. Eddie Tafoya Jr. (19), 20. Jake Swanson (1), 21. Brandon Mattox (15), 22. Briggs Danner (12), 23. Joey Amantea (21). NT
(P) represents a provisional starter
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Lap 1 Brady Bacon, Laps 2-9 Jake Swanson, Laps 10-30 Justin Grant.
**Joey Amantea flipped on lap 2 of the feature. Jake Swanson flipped on lap 24 of the feature. Robert Ballou flipped on lap 30 of the feature.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Emerson Axsom-1506, 2-Brady Bacon-1492, 3-Justin Grant-1485, 4-Jake Swanson-1427, 5-Kyle Cummins-1408, 6-C.J. Leary-1373, 7-Mitchel Moles-1290, 8-Robert Ballou-1244, 9-Daison Pursley-1202, 10-Chase Stockon-1190.
USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK INDIANA SPRINT WEEK PRESENTED BY HONEST ABE ROOFING POINTS: 1-Justin Grant-336, 2-Brady Bacon-328, 3-Emerson Axsom-313, 4-Kevin Thomas Jr.-295, 5-Robert Ballou-290, 6-C.J. Leary-275, 7-Kyle Cummins-272, 8-Shane Cottle-262, 9-Mitchel Moles-253, 10-Logan Seavey-248.
OVERALL PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Daison Pursley-141, 2-Logan Seavey-84, 3-Matt Westfall-78, 4-Robert Ballou-70, 5-Justin Grant-69, 6-Brady Bacon-68, 7-Shane Cottle-65, 8-Chase Stockon-63, 9-Emerson Axsom-62, 10-Kevin Thomas Jr.-49.
USAC INDIANA SPRINT WEEK PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Shane Cottle-52, 2-Joey Amantea-46, 3-Brady Bacon-38, 4-Daison Pursley-33, 5-Robert Ballou-32, 6-Logan Seavey-32, 7-Braxton Cummings-29, 8-Mitchel Moles-27, 9-Kevin Thomas Jr.-25, 10-Emerson Axsom-25.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: July 27, 2023 – Lincoln Park Speedway – Putnamville, Indiana – 5/16-Mile Dirt Track – 36th Annual USAC NOS Energy Drink Indiana Sprint Week Presented by Honest Abe Roofing
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
Dirt Draft Fastest Hot Laps Driver: Robert Ballou (19.947)
Honest Abe Roofing Fast Qualifier: Robert Ballou (20.289)
Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner: Robert Ballou
Rod End Supply Second Heat Winner: Mitchel Moles
T.J. Forged Third Heat Winner: Kyle Cummins
Car IQ Fourth Heat Winner: Kevin Thomas Jr.
Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts Semi Winner: C.J. Leary
Hoosier Auto Race Fans Last Semi Transfer In Memory of Rich Vogler: Chase Stockon
Hard Work Award: Joey Amantea
Green APU First Lap Leader: Brady Bacon
J & J Trucking Hard Charger: Shane Cottle (17th to 7th)