Straight to the Point: Grant Sprints to James Dean Classic Win at Gas City
Throughout Thursday night’s James Dean Classic at Indiana’s Gas City I-69 Speedway, Justin Grant experienced the fluctuating feeling of a season-long USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship battle swaying in the balance.
During the heat races, his point lead vanished for a brief moment when Brady Bacon scored a victory. Shortly thereafter, Grant regained a grip on the lead when he answered with his very own heat race win.
With all that said, there was absolutely no fluctuation whatsoever in the feature from the eighth lap onward. As soon as Grant assumed the point, he gained total command of the race at hand and control of the big picture in terms of the series point lead by scoring his 10th series win of the season aboard his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Bow Foundation – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy.
The performance turned in by Grant was one for the record books as he became just the 11th driver in the series’ 68-year history to reach double-digit feature victories in a single USAC National Sprint Car season, joining Tom Bigelow (14 in 1977), Robert Ballou (13 in 2015), J.J. Yeley (13 in 2003), Larry Dickson (12 in 1968), Pancho Carter (12 in 1976), Bubby Jones (11 in 1979), Tyler Courtney (11 in 2018), Larry Dickson (10 in 1970), Pancho Carter (10 in 1977) and Jay Drake (10 in 2000).
Grant officially owns the bragging rights for USAC National Sprint Car racing at Gas City in 2023, already staking claim as the winner of the Indiana Sprint Week round in July. Furthermore, Grant posted his second career James Dean Classic victory, previously doing so in 2020.
The 44th USAC National Sprint Car win of Grant’s career now moves him to within one of 1968-70-75 series champion Larry Dickson (45 wins) for sixth place on the all-time list.
Starting seventh in the 22-car field, Grant had some strenuous work to perform in the 30-lap span. Initially, Shane Cottle bolted to the lead from his outside front row starting position on lap one. However, Cottle’s lay of the land was short-lived as third-starting Robert Ballou split between Cottle and pole starter Emerson Axsom in turn one on lap two to position himself at the forefront of the field.
Following a yellow flag for a spin by 22nd running Rylan Gray between turns one and two on lap six, Bacon was the newest riser through the pack as he flashed around the outside of Emerson Axsom for second place on the restart.
Quickly, though, it became readily apparent that Grant came to play. First, he hit the alley between Axsom and Bacon in turn four on lap seven to escape from fourth to second. Less than a lap later, Grant was in the lead as he blazed by Ballou midway down the back straight to surge into the lead on lap eight.
Immediately, Grant launched away to a near full-straightaway lead as the race neared the halfway mark, more than three seconds ahead with 15 laps remaining as Ballou, Axsom and Bacon fought like bulldogs on a porkchop for the second spot.
In traffic, Grant was unattainable as his lead ballooned to five seconds with 10 laps to go. But funny enough, as his lead continuously expanded lap after lap, Grant truly believed that more and more pressure was mounting from the second-place car of Axsom. As it turned out, it was just a mirage in the form of another lapped car.
“While I was working lapped traffic, I kept seeing a black and white car kind of poking down there; I thought it was Axsom,” Grant revealed. “I thought I had mega pressure in lapped traffic the whole time, so I had no idea we were that good. It was so slick around here, but I knew our car was really, really good. I was kind of worried about somebody getting the bottom rolling.”
Meanwhile, behind him, Matt Westfall was crawling the bottom with perfection to edge his way up to the third spot past Ballou on lap 24 after beginning his race from mid-pack in the 22-car starting field.
However, Grant’s lead was erased on lap 25 when Daison Pursley (14th) performed a 360-degree spin in turn four which necessitated a caution. Nonetheless, it wasn’t enough to deter Grant who stepped away from the pack over the final six laps while riding the rim as the trailing Axsom and Westfall rolled the bottom in their pursuit.
In the end, Grant was too much to handle as he earned a 1.408 second margin of victory over Emerson Axsom, Matt Westfall, Robert Ballou and Brady Bacon. With Bacon finishing fifth and Grant first, Grant’s series point lead increased to 15 markers with four races remaining. But in this pressure cooker, the night sweats never cease when thinking about the championship.
“With Brady, the pressure is never off,” Grant acknowledged. “He’s a really good racecar driver; he always finds a way; and he keeps his cool. He’s just so, so hard to beat. It’s an honor to compete with him in this deal. I’ve had to become a lot better of a racecar driver because of him. It’s fun to go toe-to-toe with him and he’s as good as it gets. When we can come out on top, it feels really, really good and really rewarding.”
Emerson Axsom (Franklin, Ind.) had gone seven consecutive USAC National Sprint Car starts without a top-five result in his Clauson Marshall Newman Racing/Driven2SaveLives – ZMax Race Lubricants/Spike/Kistler Chevy. On this night, he ended that streak with a runner-up result.
Patience is a virtue and Matt Westfall (Pleasant Hill, Ohio) possesses that in droves. At Gas City, he took to the low side and picked his way from his 12th starting spot to a third-place result in his Ray Marshall Motorsports/Buckeye Machine – Hempy Water/DRC/Gressman Chevy. His plus-nine performance earned him hard charger honors for the evening.
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