From Richie Murray – USAC Media
“This is where I grew up; this is where I fell in love with racing; this is the place where I decided I wanted to be a racecar driver.”
Justin Grant fondly remembers those days of yesteryear at California’s Placerville Speedway which set the course for his life’s journey in the arena of auto racing – a path which has taken him from a teenage upstart BCRA Midget champion in 2007 to a USAC Silver Crown titlist in 2020 and as one of today’s biggest USAC stars.
All those winding roads throughout the decades since weaved its way back to his stomping grounds, back to the 1/4-mile dirt oval located just a half hour away from his Ione, Calif. home and to the most lucrative victory of his racing career on Saturday night in his RMS Racing/NOS Energy Drink – EnviroFab – Response Management Services/Spike/Speedway Toyota.
Grant tracked down USAC NOS Energy Drink Midget National Championship point leader Buddy Kofoid in front of a standing-room only crowd 14 laps from the finish of the 100-lapper, then slid past with authority and garnered himself a monumental victory worth $20,000 on the final night of the Elk Grove Ford Hangtown 100.
His third series victory of the year moved him into a tie for 80th on the all-time USAC National Midget feature win list alongside Brady Bacon, Merle Bettenhausen, Tony Bettenhausen, Hank Butcher, Kevin Doty, Dan Drinan, Ronnie Duman, Brian Gerster, Kenny Irwin Jr., Eddie Johnson, Buddy Kofoid, Michael Lewis, Andy Michner and Josh Wise.
Winning at Placerville is meaningful in so many ways to Grant. It was there as a child where he once played in the dirt with his own toy racecars while watching from afar and dreaming of a day when he too could become one of those heroes he looked up to at a young age.
“My dad would bring me here and buy me diecast cars in turn one, and we’d sit up there and watch sprint car races,” Grant revealed. “I have a lot of family here and it’s close to home in front of all these fans. It’s just a really special win.”
Grant began his quest from the seventh position in the 28-car field, looking on as outside front row starter Zeb Wise slotted into the early race lead.
Prior to the feature, Friday night’s Hangtown 100 prelim winner and top point driver, Kyle Larson, had his son, Owen, draw the inversion number with 12, 14 and 16 being the only available options. Owen pulled out a 12, meaning Larson would have to start the main event from the 12th position while the 12th place driver in weekend points, Taylor Reimer, started from the pole.
Larson’s first bump in the road came on the 12th lap when he, Brenham Crouch (11th) and Tanner Carrick (18th) all tangled and stopped in between turns one and two. Larson went to the work area briefly then restarted as did Carrick, while Crouch was finished for the evening.
The top-two of Wise and sixth-starting Kofoid formed a two-car breakaway in the ensuing laps with Kofoid perusing the bottom of turns one and two while scouring the top of three and four as he studied his path to get by Wise. Kofoid passed the test and passed Wise as he dove past on the bottom of turn three 21 laps into the event.
Mere moments later, on lap 24, Grant and Wise banged wheels entering turn three with Grant forging way past and into the second spot.
From there on, the chase was on as Grant relentlessly pursued Kofoid for the lead, shadowing him low in turns one and two and on the top in turns three and four all while being encapsulated by the traffic that surrounded them as they encroached the halfway mark.
However, on lap 54, Michael Faccinto and Thomas Meseraull were engaged in a tussle for the 20th spot on the back straightaway, which resulted in Faccinto spinning right in the middle of the racetrack and in the direct path of the leaders. Kofoid swerved to miss as did Grant. However, Bryant Wiedeman (3rd) and Shane Golobic (4th) were the misfortunate ones caught up in the melee, as they both smashed into the front end of Faccinto. Wiedeman continued onward, but Golobic slid to a stop, requiring a right rear tire change.
The scheduled midway stop for fuel was signaled at that moment and, under open red conditions, teams topped off with fuel and made tweaks and adjustments to prepare for the final 47 laps.
Running 12th at the time of the red, Larson became one of the prime movers as soon as action resumed. Just six laps after the drop of the green, Larson ran sixth and was hauling. Just as soon as Larson put himself back into contention, heartbreak hit the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champ on lap 67 when he drifted sideways on entry to turn one on the cushion, which sent him barrel-rolling over the banking. He was okay, and after quick repairs, returned to the fray.
Up front, lap after lap of pulling to the outside of Kofoid in one and two and to the inside in turns three and four finally paid off for Grant on lap 87 as he slid across the nose of Kofoid in turn three, drifting to the top of turn four, then promptly nipping Kofoid by a wheel at the line before slicing to the bottom of turn one to deny Kofoid a chance at retaliation.
“The track was really kind of momentum based there,” Grant explained. “You got on a long run, and it was harder and harder to capitalize the more a guy could get in his rhythm. Buddy was killing us on the starts there early but this car really came around late. I kind of figured out in one and two I could enter outside his right rear a little bit and not lose any team and have way better angle up off two and then stay in the moisture down the backstretch.”
On the ensuing restart following a turn two spin by 2019 race winner Larson, who finished 18th, Grant steadily constructed a two car lengths lead, which stretched out to four, then to six with just five laps remaining and nary a morsel of traffic or obstructions awaiting ahead.
Grant rounded the final corner with both eyes on the prize as he passed under the double checkers to win by a 0.959 second margin over Kofoid in second with Logan Seavey third, Chris Windom fourth and Carson Macedo rounding out the top-five.
Buddy Kofoid (Penngrove, Calif.) didn’t shy away from expressing his disappointment in finishing second after leading a race high 66 laps in his Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Mobil 1 – TRD – Toyota/Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota. While the disappointment of letting a win slip away took its immediate effect, Kofoid could also take some solace in the fact that he extended his USAC National point lead from 12 to 18 over Windom with just three races now remaining this season.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Kofoid admitted. “I guess, at the end of the day, it was a good points night. It sucks to lead that many laps and lose it. Justin was just better on the long runs at the end, and I faded at the end. I was probably too good too early, but a second is nothing to hang your head about.”
A late charge to a third-place finish paid off in a big way for Logan Seavey and his Tom Malloy/Trench Shoring – Rodela Specialty Fabrication/King/Ed Pink Toyota. But it was his total accumulation of points throughout the weekend that truly paid off with a $12,000 bonus being paid out as the overall Hangtown 100 points champion.
“I was really trying to give it away the first half of the race,” Seavey recalled. “I just kept making mistakes, but I started coming on strongly at the end. My car kept getting better as the race went on and that’s what you’ve got to do here in these 100 lap races. I think I may have hurt my tires a little too much at the beginning of the race which may have hurt me those last few laps. We were charging really hard those last 30 laps and I could really make the middle work in one and two and that’s where I was gaining a lot of speed, then I was able to clear a slider down into three. That’s really where I could make ground, and when the middle cleaned off, this thing came to life right when I needed to make some moves and win this point championship.”
1. Justin Grant (7), 2. Buddy Kofoid (6), 3. Logan Seavey (11), 4. Chris Windom (3), 5. Carson Macedo (13), 6. Tanner Thorson (14), 7. Cory Eliason (25-P), 8. Emerson Axsom (10), 9. Tanner Carrick (22), 10. Shane Golobic (9), 11. Kevin Thomas Jr. (16), 12. Thomas Meseraull (23), 13. Colby Copeland (15), 14. Kaylee Bryson (24), 15. Bryant Wiedeman (4), 16. Taylor Reimer (1), 17. Zeb Wise (2), 18. Kyle Larson (12), 19. Cannon McIntosh (17), 20. Chase Elliott (28-O), 21. Jade Avedisian (27-O), 22. Ethan Mitchell (19), 23. Michael Faccinto (21), 24. Ryan Timms (8), 25. Jason McDougal (18), 26. Maria Cofer (20), 27. Carson Sousa (26-P), 28. Brenham Crouch (5).
See the full recap by Richie Murray:
Photo: Devin Mayo