That’s how Justin Grant reflected on the twists and turns he endured en route to his second consecutive USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National driving Championship in 2023 for TOPP Motorsports.
It’s a team that endured a nearly two-month struggle in the late spring/early summer months which overlapped with a change in team personnel and a period of confidence-shaking woes that found the team as far down as sixth in the standings, 83 points out of the lead, entering mid-summer.
What was not a laughing matter quickly turned into one of the most dominant stretches put together by any team in series history. For the last half of the season, Grant and his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Bow Foundation – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy No. 4 were practically untouchable on their way to the $50,000 championship prize.
With a career-high 11 USAC National Sprint Car victories in 2023, including eight wins in his final 17 starts, Grant (Ione, Calif.) finished out the campaign with 13 straight top-tens to earn the title by a 109-point margin over yearlong challenger Brady Bacon. Grant became the 13th different point leader on September 9, one of a record six different drivers to lead the standings in 2023. The previous record was 12 lead changes among six drivers back in 2012.
In the process, Grant became the 10th driver to capture consecutive USAC National Sprint Car titles, joining Parnelli Jones (1960-61-62), Sheldon Kinser (1981-82), Rick Hood (1984-85), Steve Butler (1986-87-88), Robbie Stanley (1991-92-93), Brian Tyler (1996-97), Levi Jones (2009-10-11), Bryan Clauson (2012-13) and Brady Bacon (2020-21).
“It’s incredible to hear my name rattled off with all of those guys,” an awestruck Grant remarked. “It’s also something that’s not necessarily something flukey or obscure; it’s something that took work and is truly an accomplishment. A few of them were before my time, but obviously, I know of them and what they did, and a few of them are guys that I grew up watching and a few more of them are guys that were the top dogs when I moved to Indiana. Now, to be there with Brady, who is one of the best of our generation, is very cool. The last couple of years getting to battle with Brady has been very rewarding. He’s very good at what he does and is very good at running for championships. It’s taken a lot of work on my end to try and rise to the occasion.”
No championship is easy by any stretch of the imagination and Grant experienced his share of troubles in 2023. A strong beginning was earmarked by back-to-back series wins, including a complete sweep of the night at Tri-State Speedway and a score on the opening night of #LetsRaceTwo at Eldora. One night later at Eldora, Grant got upside down, setting off a string of five 13th place or worse results in a six-race stretch.
“It just seemed like we didn’t have a lot of speed, and the days that we did find some speed, I managed to crash or something, and it just seemed like we couldn’t get anything to go right,” Grant recalled. “I remember thinking that our championship hopes were pretty well squashed. We had kind of thrown it away at this point, and obviously, I’m going to keep doing my job, but I figured it was going to be pretty unlikely.”
When it rains, it pours, and after a push truck got the best of his car while being shoved away for qualifying on the opening night of Eastern Storm at Pennsylvania’s Grandview Speedway, Grant was running mid-pack when Grant felt his confidence slipping away.
“I remember just riding around 10th or 11th one night during Eastern Storm and thinking I don’t know if I’ll ever win another race again. This might be it. I might not ever win again.”
However, a sigh of relief arrived by the end of the week when Grant won on the half-mile of Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway. But the positivity proved to be short lived. After an overall tumultuous Eastern Storm, Grant’s crew chief, Dylan Cook, made the surprising revelation that he was leaving the team to pursue other opportunities. In the aftermath, in stepped veteran crew chief Jeff Walker, a three-time USAC National Sprint Car entrant champ in 1998, 2000 and 2001.
Grant and Walker’s relationship dates all the way back to 2008-09 when Grant, then a recent BCRA Midget champ on the west coast, made the move to the Midwest to work and live with Walker. Grants explains that, back then, Walker taught him much of the knowledge he still uses to this day with Walker possessing the ability to get the best out of Grant and numerous others he’s helped along the way.
A particularly rough two-night Macon (Ill.) Speedway outing in July saw Grant involved in crashes on both nights, the first of which sent him veering into the infield, and ultimately, striking a Cadillac Escalade push truck, wedging the nose of his car under its rear bumper. While gone midget racing the following week, Walker was busy at work in the team’s Gasoline Alley shop, going through the inventory before calling Grant and alerting him that he’d found some stuff that wasn’t quite right. It’s a piece of the puzzle that Grant fondly describes as Walker going “full J-Dub.”
“I had complained on the way home from Macon – I was more complaining about myself – but I just didn’t know if it was me and I just didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t feel the racecar. I wasn’t sure if I was messed up or something else is messed up or what, but I just felt completely lost with the car. He’s like, ‘oh, Levi (Jones) and I had this happen one time and he said the same thing that he couldn’t feel the racecar. We’re going to fix that, and you’ll get back to kicking their asses again.’ Just having that, whether there was something actually wrong or not, gave me the belief that it wasn’t me and that we were going to be good again. Having that just helped me find my way back.”
Things seemingly turned on a dime from that point forward. The next race out, Grant stole a last lap victory from Robert Ballou during the USAC NOS Energy Drink Indiana Sprint Week opener at Gas City I-69 Speedway and he never slowed down from there on. It was the first of his three wins during Indiana Sprint Week, which saw him collect additional scores at Lawrenceburg Speedway and the Terre Haute Action Track.
However, August marked the most successful and lucrative single weekend of his career when he nailed down three consecutive victories in as many nights at Indiana’s Kokomo Speedway to become the first driver in the 12-year history of Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts Sprint Car Smackdown to sweep his way to three successive feature triumphs in one weekend. His take home pay for Saturday night alone was $44,500, pocketing the base pay of $30,000 while also adding a cool $500 per each lap led.
Grant proceeded to sweep the USAC Sprint season at Gas City with a James Dean Classic triumph in September, then secured a win in what turned out to be the season finale, a $20,000 payday in October’s Fall Nationals at Lawrenceburg. In doing so, Grant became the 11th driver to win the final race of his championship season, joining Eddie Sachs (1958), Tommy Hinnershitz (1959), Parnelli Jones (1960), Pancho Carter (1974), Sheldon Kinser (1977 & 1982), Steve Butler (1988), Josh Wise (2006), Levi Jones (2011) and Brady Bacon (2020).
It all started with confidence being re-instilled in Grant. Kevin Birchmeier’s TOPP Motorsports team has had Grant in the seat for the past six consecutive seasons, and now their reward includes back-to-back USAC National Sprint Car championships.
“We were able to turn it around just because the team at TOPP Motorsports with Kevin Birchmeier who has always had my back 110 percent,” Grant praised. “The more I struggle, the more he’s pumping me up. I’ve driven for a lot of car owners and that’s pretty rare. I’m always super grateful for Kevin and it’s a different experience driving racecars when you know that the people you’re driving for are in your corner no matter what. That allows you to be comfortable and able to work through things to get back to where you need to be. When you’re trying to force it back, it never works.”
To win a championship with Walker is the reward of a journey that started 15 years ago. Walker helped Grant buy his first passenger car when he was a teenager and when Walker became available after parting ways with Sterling Cling Racing this past summer, Grant swooped him up in a heartbeat. In fact, Walker was set on retirement, insisting that he was finished before the call came from Grant. The initial plan of just helping Grant for a few weeks suddenly transformed into a role for the rest of the season, and now Walker is prepared to chase a third-straight USAC Sprint title with Grant in 2024.
Grant harbors no hard feelings about Cook’s exodus from the team and insisted that Cook was doing his job just fine. However, Grant admitted that, on occasion, a little bit of a shakeup and a fresh outlook can re-spark things. And with the combination of TOPP and Walker, Grant felt he was at his best.
“With the environment at TOPP Motorsports, Kevin allows me to be my best and then getting J-Dub involved really made me be my best,” Grant said. “I like winning, and I like seeing my name on those all-time lists, but it’s extra rewarding to get to do it for an owner like Kevin. Kevin hired me in 2018 after I got released from the Sam McGhee Motorsports car when we lost the championship and has stuck with me ever since, so it’s special for me to be able to win races for him and win him championships.”
“And being able to win one for Jeff,” Grant continued. “He’s the one who brought me to the Midwest and taught me a lot of what I know and got me started. He’s been in a pretty big lull, so to get him back and be part of him winning races again, and doing all that, feels really, really good. It feels like a little bit of repayment for what he has done for me over the years.”
For the fourth consecutive year, and sixth time overall, Brady Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) finished top-two in the series standings on the strength of seven victories. His $20,000 Haubstadt Hustler victory in September at Tri-State gave him his 53rd career USAC National Sprint Car feature win, pushing him up to second all-time in series victories past Tom Bigelow. Additionally, by adding a pair of victories at Macon (Illinois) and at Devil’s Bowl Speedway (Texas), Bacon became the new record holder of the most different states won in by a USAC National Sprint Car driver. Bacon now stands alone at 14.
Furthermore, Bacon picked up his second career USAC Indiana Sprint Week championship in 2023, which was highlighted in round three of the series at Lawrenceburg where he was light at the scales in tech inspection after qualifying. The penalty forced him to start from the tail in all proceeding events throughout the evening. In the feature, he managed to make the biggest charge of the entire USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship season when he advanced from his 22nd starting position to finish third.
One year after corralling Rookie of the Year honors, Emerson Axsom (Franklin, Ind.) finished third in the standings for Clauson Marshall Newman Racing. The highlight of the season came in June when Axsom won on back-to-back nights in Pennsylvania at Big Diamond Speedway and Williams Grove Speedway, which vaulted him to the Eastern Storm title.
Kyle Cummins (Princeton, Ind.) equaled his career high with four USAC National Sprint Car wins, including a comeback victory at Ocala, Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park, which involved the team blowing their only two engines they brought with them prior to the race. Receiving a third engine just in the nick of time that was driven through the night from Indiana, the Rock Steady Racing team installed the new powerplant under the hood in a hotel parking lot and proceeded to win a $10,000 payday.
Jake Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) piloted his Team AZ Racing ride to a career high four wins and a career best fifth place finish in the points. Among his quartet of victories was a last lap pass of Bacon to win a $12,000 top prize at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway.
C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) won three series features and was rewarded with a $10,000 top prize for earning the Bubby Jones Master of Goin’ Faster Presented By Spire Sports + Entertainment championship. Leary, in his first season with the BGE Dougherty Motorsports team, became the titlist after tallying the most points throughout a 10-race miniseries at 10 different tracks within the USAC National Sprint Car season.
Logan Seavey (Sutter, Calif.) and 2B Racing got hot late in the season, winning twice in September in spectacular fashion with a last lap pass of Shane Cottle for the victory at Indiana’s Circle City Raceway followed by a complete sweep of the USAC portion of the 4-Crown Nationals at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway where he won a Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown feature on the very same night within the span of a couple hours.
Mitchel Moles (Raisin City, Calif.) won once for Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports in the series debut on the 1/5-mile Macon Speedway in July. During the series’ first ever visit to Arkansas’ Texarkana 67 Speedway in September, Matt Westfall (Pleasant Hill, Ohio) returned to USAC National Sprint Car victory lane for the first time since 2006. The 17-year, two month and 23-day span between series victories was a new USAC record, surpassing the previous mark of 12 years, 11 months and 4 days between wins by Doug Wolfgang between 1978-1991. In doing so, he also provided veteran car owner Ray Marshall his long-awaited first USAC score.
Daison Pursley (Locust Grove, Okla.) finished 11th in the overall series standings for KO Motorsports to earn USAC National Sprint Car Rookie of the Year honors for the 2023 season, just less than two years after suffering a severe spinal cord injury which required several months of recovery in a hospital and rehabilitation center. Pursley scored a non-points special event victory on Valentine’s Day at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park.
Bacon led all series drivers with 262 feature laps led throughout 2023. Bacon also topped all drivers with five fast qualifying times and 25 top-fives in 36 starts while Axsom notched a series-best 29 top-tens. Robert Ballou (Rocklin, Calif.) was the heat race master of the season, picking up 12 victories. Meanwhile, five drivers started all 36 feature events, including Axsom, Bacon, Ballou, Grant and Leary.
Chase Stockon (Fort Branch, Ind.), who finished eighth in the standings, became just the fifth driver in USAC National Sprint Car history to finish inside the top-10 of the point standings in at least 12 consecutive years dating back to 2012. The only drivers with as many or more consecutive top-five points finishes in the series are Dave Darland (1997-2018), Sheldon Kinser (1974-1987), Levi Jones (2001-2012) and Chris Windom (2010-2021).
The racing community grieved the death of competitor Justin Owen (Harrison, Ohio) who succumbed to injuries following a qualifying accident on April 8 at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway after his car made contact with the outside wall and flipped multiple times in turn three. The 26-year-old Owen was the reigning Lawrenceburg sprint car track champion at the time of his death. Owen’s passing was the first in USAC National Sprint Car racing since Don Townsend in a 2005 practice crash at Ohio’s Mansfield Motorsports Park. Owen’s incident was the first fatal accident with the USAC National Sprint Car division on dirt since Jeff Thickstun at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1984.