Season Review: Justin Grant, TOPP Motorsports Reach Top of USAC Sprint Mountain
Series News Release - USAC Media
There was a time when Justin Grant nearly walked away from the sport.
Without a full-time sprint car ride and twin children on the way in 2016, Grant envisioned a life away from the track and leaving his racing dreams in the rearview mirror.
That’s when a voice from within the family, a voice from a National Sprint Car Hall of Famer, expressed to Grant that it would be something he’d soon regret, and promptly altered the course of his career and livelihood.
“I raced for a while, then things got pretty rough when I wasn’t having much success and I was getting pretty broke,” Grant recalled. “I about hung it up, but I’m sure glad I didn’t. My father-in-law, Bubby (Jones), told me that it would be the dumbest thing I ever did. Turns out he was right. He usually was.”
Six years later, in 2022, the resilient Ione, Calif. native finally became a USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Champion for the first time, and a USAC National titlist for the second time in his career following a Silver Crown championship in 2020.
By doing so, Grant became the 14th driver to capture both a USAC National Sprint Car and Silver Crown title in his career, joining Gary Bettenhausen, Steve Butler, Pancho Carter, Jerry Coons Jr. , Dave Darland, A.J. Foyt, Justin Grant, Tracy Hines, Rick Hood, Levi Jones, Ken Schrader, Tony Stewart, Chris Windom & J.J. Yeley.
He couldn’t help but recall the long, arduous journey that took him from 2010 USAC National Sprint Car Rookie of the Year for Baldwin Brothers Racing to his 2016 comeback with Sam McGhee Motorsports and all the way to the mountaintop in 2022 and a championship reward worth $50,000, not counting his copious amounts of race winnings.
Grant’s mind goes back to a time in the days preceding that, when he just wanted a chance, any chance, to get behind the wheel and was willing to pitch in any way he could to get noticed and get his shot.
The post-race championship celebration at California’s Perris Auto Speedway seemed fitting for Grant, and the 31-year-old couldn’t help but realize the significance of the setting as he stood on the front straightaway following the final night of the year.
“I grew up coming to Perris and watching guys race sprint cars and I’d go down to scrape mud on Danny Sheridan’s car or whomever would let me hang around,” Grant recalled. “I never really thought I’d get the chance to drive one. I met Jeff Walker, went to work for him and he taught me a lot and, eventually, he let me drive one of his cars for a few nights.”
It wasn’t only Grant’s first rodeo as a USAC National Sprint Car champ, it was the first entrant title for Rochester, Indiana’s TOPP Motorsports, which had finished third in the standings in 2017-20-21.
The Grant/TOPP combo is the longest, continuously tenured team on the USAC tour, first teaming up for the start of the 2018 season. Along the way, the team has won 26 times, making it the fifth winningest driver/team pairing in USAC National Sprint Car history. The team has built upon its foundation, getting closer and closer to the top, adding pivotal pieces along the way, until reaching the pinnacle at last.
“We’ve spent the last couple of years working really hard trying to become a championship caliber team,” Grant explained. “Hiring (crew chief) “Paul Bunyan” Dylan Cook was huge, and we didn’t have a single DNF all year. I went to work pretty hard on myself trying to keep myself mentally sharp and keep my head in the game and in the right spot. (TOPP Motorsports owner) Kevin Birchmeier gives us everything we need go out and compete every night. We have plenty of fast cars and plenty of spares and there’s so many who contribute to this operation to make it possible for us to be prepared and ready to race as we are.”
It's a full family effort for Grant who, for the second year in a row, has participated in every single event across USAC’s three national divisions (Silver Crown, Midget & Sprint), and there’s no way to make the hectic schedule operate like clockwork without assistance from all around.
“I’ve had so much help along the way, and I still have so much help,” Grant acknowledged. “There are so many people who I can lean on, and I’ve got a lot of great people in my corner. All my car owners and all my sponsors, they’re all some of my best friends. My wife, Ashley, makes it possible for me to do this and always has my back. She’s always pumping me up to keep me confident and I’m just so thankful. I’ve certainly worked hard to be here, but it wouldn’t have been possible without everybody around me and all the people who have supported me along the way.”
In 2022, Grant recorded an impeccable 37 top-ten finishes in 39 feature starts, which registers a top-10 rate of nearly 95 percent. Grant was still running at the checkered flag in all 39 races between February and November with nary a DNF throughout the yearlong quest. His six victories on the season came in many of the series’ most marquee events.
Grant scored in February during Winter Dirt Games at Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park and again in June at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway. He added a $10,000 prize during July’s Bill Gardner Sprintacular at Indiana’s Lincoln Park Speedway. He captured the Indiana Sprint Week round at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway later that month and repeated at Kokomo in August during a preliminary night of Sprint Car Smackdown. Another $10 Grand went in his pocket following September’s 4-Crown Nationals at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
Grant was one of three drivers to hit the six-win mark on the season along with Brady Bacon and Robert Ballou. That made it only the fourth time in series history that in which at least three different drivers have won six or more features in a season (1961, 1977, 2013 & 2022).
Also on Grant’s checklist for the 2022 season was an Indiana Sprint Week title, which he clinched for the first time in his career during midsummer after finishing inside the top-five of the annual series’ points in each of the prior three seasons.
In the end, Grant became the seventh individual to collect both Indiana Sprint Week and USAC National Sprint Car driving titles in the same year: J.J. Yeley (2003), Levi Jones (2009), Bryan Clauson (2013), Robert Ballou (2015), Brady Bacon (2016) and C.J. Leary (2019).
Thirteen different drivers won a USAC National Sprint Car feature in 2022, the most since 2017. Among them were Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) who had a season that was highlighted by a first career Oval Nationals victory to conclude the slate in November at Perris and was worth $20,000.
Bacon padded his wallet by earning the inaugural Bubby Jones Master of Going Faster Presented By Spire Sports + Entertainment series title, a 10-race series within a series in which Bacon earned an extra $10,000 as the point champ.
Furthermore, Bacon extended his streak of consecutive seasons with a USAC National Sprint Car win to 12, which now stands only one behind the all-time mark of 13-straight set by Sheldon Kinser between 1974-86. Bacon’s 46th victory in the season finale moved him to fourth all-time on the series win list. He’s now one of only four drivers in the 40/40 club to have accumulated at least 40 series wins and 40 fast qualifying times in his career along with Dave Darland, Tom Bigelow and Tracy Hines.
Ballou (Rocklin, Calif.) posted his best result since his 2015 championship campaign by earning six wins, including the 52nd running of the Tony Hulman Classic at the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track in May, racing within the confines of the new guardrail surrounding the half-mile dirt oval, a guardrail which Ballou, himself, played a major role in instructing and installing.
Kyle Cummins (Princeton, Ind.) had his most successful single-season run with the series, tallying four wins and the best single-night payday of the year with a $35,000 triumph during Sprint Car Smackdown at Kokomo in August.
Emerson Axsom (Franklin, Ind.) took Rookie of the Year honors, a season which got off on the right foot with wins in two of his first three starts in February at Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park.
Axsom was one of four first-time USAC National Sprint Car feature winners during the season, which is the most since 2016. Mitchel Moles (Raisin City, Calif.) avenged a crash while leading the night before to win his first in July at the Huset’s Speedway USAC Nationals in South Dakota.
Moles’ eight fast qualifying times were the most ever in series history for a Rookie, breaking the mark set by Tanner Thorson in 2021. Incidentally, both Moles and Thorson were driving the same Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports No. 19AZ when they set their respective records.
USAC west coast standout Ryan Bernal (Hollister, Calif.) made just three starts during the season, but one of those three resulted in a first career series victory after more than a decade of trying. His win at Huset’s also provided event promoter Matt Wood with his first career series win as a car owner.
Jadon Rogers (Worthington, Ind.) had to slay a pair of giants en route to his first series victory during September’s $12,000-to-win Haubstadt Hustler at Tri-State Speedway, withstanding a barrage from the track’s two winningest USAC Sprint Car drivers during the final laps – Kevin Thomas Jr. and Kyle Cummins.
C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) won thrice, but his qualifying prowess was off the charts. His 12 fast times in 2022 rank as the third most all-time in a single season behind Kevin Thomas Jr.’s 15 in 2018 and Tom Bigelow’s 14 in 1978. After notching 11 fast times in 2019, Leary became the first driver in series history to hit double figures in that category on two separate occasions.
Kevin Thomas Jr. (Cullman, Ala.) was absent for practically the entire first half of the season but emerged with a force by reaching victory lane three times in a span of five starts during the latter stages of summer.
Logan Seavey (Sutter, Calif.) won twice in June during the series’ swing through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His spectacular week resulted in a first career Eastern Storm miniseries title.
Shane Cottle (Kansas, Ill.) led one lap and one lap only during the 2022 season. He made it the right one during July’s Indiana Sprint Week opener at Gas City I-69 Speedway. It was the second time in the last four years that Cottle had made a last lap effort to win the Gas City round of ISW.
Furthermore, the 50-year-old Cottle joined an exclusive club by becoming the seventh driver over the age of 50 to win a USAC National Sprint Car main event, putting him in the same company as Bob Kinser (54), Terry Pletch (52), Dean Shirley (51), Hank Lower (51), Dave Darland (51) and Jack Hewitt (50).
Jake Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) endured a tumultuous up-and-down season that saw him injured during a July crash at Kokomo, which resulted in a hospital stay. Swanson finished the season with a flurry, collecting podium finishes in four of his last five starts to conclude the season.
Swanson’s biggest success of the year arrived in the 55th Annual Western World Championships, held for the first time at Arizona’s Cocopah Speedway. Swanson’s performance on the final night consisted of a fast qualifying time, a heat race win and a feature victory, resulting in a $10,000 prize and the first complete “sweep” in the series since Tyler Courtney at Eldora in 2019.
Eight drivers appeared at all 39 series events in 2022: Axsom, Bacon, Ballou, Grant, Leary, Rogers, Seavey and Westfall. Five drivers started all 39 feature during the season: Axsom, Bacon, Ballou, Grant and Leary. The average car count across all events was 34.5 while 137 different drivers recorded at least one feature start.
Bacon led all drivers with 224 laps led, 27 top-five finishes and 11 heat race victories.
The most positions advanced in a single feature race throughout the year was +15 from Shane
Cottle (22nd to 7th) on July 25 at Circle City Raceway and by Logan Seavey (21st to 6th) on October 29 at Cocopah Speedway.
The series was saddened by the death of Terre Babb (Decatur, Ill.), who passed away from a heart attack while leading a winged sprint car feature in a non-USAC sanctioned event at Missouri’s Saint Francois County Raceway in July at the age of 55. Babb made his final USAC National Sprint Car appearance in June at Wisconsin’s Angell Park Speedway, finishing 13th. Babb qualified for eight USAC National Sprint Car feature events in his career, scoring a 14th in his debut at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill. in 1990. With the series in 2010 at 34 Raceway in West Burlington, Iowa, Babb set quick time during qualifying and finished a career best 5th in the main event.