From Richie Murray / USAC Media
You only get one chance to make a first impression. But when that impression lasts throughout the entirety of the weekend, that’s when you know you’ve got something special.
For the second time in as many nights, Justin Grant raced his RMS Racing/NOS Energy Drink – EnviroFab – Response Management Services/Spike/Speedway Toyota straight into victory lane at Ocala, Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park, sweeping to victory during both nights of the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget opening weekend at Winter Dirt Games XIII.
The Ione, Calif. native prevailed through an early race rain delay, then shadowed series Rookie Jade Avedisian for the first 18 laps before making his move entering turn one to capture his second straight win to begin the 2022 season.
With the victory, Grant became just the ninth driver in the 67-year history of the series to start off the year with back-to-back wins in the first two races of the season, joining Lee Kunzman (1972), Gary Bettenhausen (1975), Rich Vogler (1984-85), Dave Steele (2002), Brad Sweet (2010), Bryan Clauson (2011), Rico Abreu (2014) and Tyler Courtney (2019).
For Grant’s sake, it’s a good omen, as each of those last three on the list went on to win the USAC National Midget championship later that same season. That’s now four wins in the last six starts for this burgeoning combination.
“We really got on a roll at the end of last year and have just kept building on that night after night after night,” Grant explained. “We’ve got ourselves in a box where we can make real small tweaks and really keep finding more and more speed.”
The evening was fraught with rain, with a lengthy precipitation period delaying the first heat race, then also moisturizing the 3/8-mile D-shaped dirt track three laps into the feature following an incident involving eighth running Thomas Meseraull who tagged the turn three wall and flipped over. During the rain delay, however, Meseraull’s RMS Racing team repaired the car and rejoined the field from the back of the pack for the restart.
Avedisian started from the pole and was in control prior to and following the red flag condition on a lightning fast surface that put passing at a premium due to two separate showers hitting the track during the event. The 15-year-old Avedisian held strong against the constant pressure form Grant and held her own throughout the first half as she sought to become the first woman to ever win a USAC National series feature event.
At midway, Avedisian’s lead was just a tick under a full second ahead of Grant, but traffic loomed and that spelled trouble for the driver making just her ninth career series start.
On lap 19, she caught up to the 17th and 18th place cars of Mariah Ede and Hayden Reinbold. Avedisian took the median lane down the front straightaway while Grant put his ride right up on the outside fence, then swung low, sweet chariot to the bottom of turn one, underneath Avedisian. Grant’s right rear tire and Avedisian’s left front scrubbed against each other, as Grant raced past to take over the lead of the field.
“I was having trouble getting to her,” Grant recalled. “I was having to run really, really hard just to hang with her. As three and four slicked up and got a little more technical as we got to lapped traffic, I was hoping it would kind of play back into my hands. It gets tricky and that’s when you can capitalize on that. I’ve been on both sides of that situation a lot and I’ve lost a lot of races just the same exact way she lost that one. I learned from those and now I get to capitalize on them.”
With 10 to go, reigning series champion Buddy Kofoid stuck his car low between turns three and four as Avedisian attempted to find a path in between or around Reinbold and Ede, to no avail. Kofoid capitalized, cut under Avedisian to gain the lead by an inch at the line, then carried the line into turn one and walked away with the runner-up spot.
On lap 24, Meseraull’s no good very bad day took a turn for the worse when his rear axle snapped, folding the right rear wheel under his car in turn four and sending the defending race winner of this event upside down for the second time during the feature. Once again, Meseraull walked away without injury.
Upon resumption, a clear line of sight was present for the leaders. Kofoid was able to pull even midway through the corner on both ends of the racetrack for the first three laps following the restart, but each time, Grant slipped away into the darkness.
Grant finished off the 30-lap distance ahead of Kofoid by a 0.478 second margin, and by doing so, became the winningest driver in USAC competition at Bubba Raceway Park with his fifth overall victory (3 sprint, 2 midget), breaking a tie he held briefly with Brady Bacon and Tyler Courtney. Avedisian, Emerson Axsom and Mitchel Moles rounded out the top-five.
While Grant earned his 11th career USAC National Midget feature win, which tied Kasey Kahne, Jimmy Knight, Bob McLean, Johnny Moorhouse, Bobby Santos and Brad Sweet for 64th all-time, he also gave major props to another competitor who’s yet to score that initial victory in Avedisian.
“Jade, she’s a racer,” Grant stated. “She’s got speed and she’s got a lot of racecraft. I’m pretty good at starting races and she worked me over on that initial start. She knows some tricks and she’s pretty savvy. She’s going to win one of these things before too long. She’ll be the first girl to win a USAC national race, I guarantee it.”
Fresno, California’s Avedisian has already become just the second woman to record multiple top-four finishes in USAC National Midget competition along with Holly Shelton. Utilizing her CB Industries/CMT – Sheesh – PristineAuction.com/Spike/Speedway Toyota, Avedisian bested her previous top series finish of fourth at Merced (Calif.) Speedway in November of 2021. Although, she feels the result could’ve been even better had she made the right decisions at the right time.
“I wish I could’ve got through traffic better,” Avedisian lamented. “We’ll take this third place and just keep trying to get better.”
Buddy Kofoid (Penngrove, Calif.) believed he was just as good, if not better than, Grant at the end, but just couldn’t make his Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Mobil 1 – Toyota – TRD/Bullet By Spike/Speedway Toyota stick down the stretch, as he earned a runner-up finish on Saturday night.
“I feel like we’ve got really good car speed,” Kofoid said. “It’s hard to say with how fast the track was, but I felt like I had the fastest car at the end and could work three and four really well and make speed. I feel like that’s where I could pounce on people and get them. I could carry a unique line into one and kind of cheat the entry and get back to the bottom on exit really well. It was tough to pass, but fifth to second isn’t bad tonight.”
Kaylee Bryson reached a milestone by recording her 47th career USAC National Midget feature start, which moved her into second all-time among all women with the series, surpassing Sarah McCune at 46. Bryson, of Muskogee, Okla., remains just six starts behind Holly Shelton’s all-time record of 53.
Brenham Crouch and Corey Joyner escaped injury during a violent incident during the first heat race of the night. Crouch (Lubbock, Texas) flipped eight times after tangling in the first turn with Kevin Thomas Jr. on the initial lap. Joyner (Concordia, Kan.) attempted to miss the carnage, but skidded into the wall and flipped. Joyner walked away unscathed, but Crouch was treated and released from an area hospital after being diagnosed with a concussion.
Feature Results (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses)
1. Justin Grant (2), 2. Buddy Kofoid (5), 3. Jade Avedisian (1), 4. Emerson Axsom (3), 5. Mitchel Moles (4), 6. Tanner Thorson (9), 7. Bryant Wiedeman (6), 8. Taylor Reimer (12), 9. Kevin Thomas Jr. (15), 10. Jace Park (7), 11. Dominic Gorden (13), 12. Logan Seavey (14), 13. Cannon McIntosh (10), 14. Kaylee Bryson (18), 15. Ethan Mitchell (17), 16. Chase McDermand (8), 17. Hayden Reinbold (16), 18. Mariah Ede (19), 19. Thomas Meseraull (11), 20. Steve Buckwalter (20). NT
NEXT USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACES: March 11-12, 2022 – Southern Illinois Center – Du Quoin, Illinois – 6th Shamrock Classic Presented by Dooling Machine Products – 1/6-Mile Dirt Track – Non-Points Special Event
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Photo: Rich Forman