SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Justin Grant dominated Saturday’s USAC Silver Crown Series Bettenhausen 100 on Saturday afternoon at the Illinois State Fairgrounds dirt mile.
The Ione, Calif., native had the nose of the white No. 63 driven by the two-time USAC Silver Crown champ and winner of the last two Bettenhausen 100 races right on his tail for the final 25 laps after Kody Swanson had put on one of his patented late-race clinics.
Intimidation was not in Grant’s vocabulary as he was able to stave off Swanson’s charges in the final laps, including a green-white-checkered finish to capture his first USAC Silver Crown Series victory in his Carli-Hemelgarn Racing/Carli Motorsports – Hemelgarn Enterprises/DRC/Speedway Ford. In the process, he became the first driver to get his first series win at the Springfield Mile since fellow Californian Cole Whitt in 2009.
“With Kody behind you, you want to start running the thing harder because you know he’s so good,” Grant said. “At the same time, that’s what he’s so good at. He gets you to run your car harder, miss your marks and burn your stuff up. I just knew we had to keep doing what we were doing without making a mistake. I couldn’t leave anything out there. I had to run it hard, but I still had to hit my marks. The guys on the radio were telling me to just keep doing what I was doing and I’d be fine.”
Grant began his race from the outside of the front row, using a big run on the outside to snare the lead from pole winner Jerry Coons Jr. on the opening lap heading into turn one, instantly building a four-car-length lead by the time the field hit the back straight.
Meanwhile, three-time Bettenhausen 100 winner Brian Tyler had clicked his way from 10th to fifth by the opening lap.
On the lap 20 restart, third-running Chris Windom’s car didn’t get up to speed when the green flag fell. As the rest of the field scrambled to avoid him, Keith Burch, making his Silver Crown debut, made hard contact with the outside turn one wall. He was able to climb out of the car under his own power, but was done for the day.
By lap 36, Tyler had climbed to second and sized up Grant to make his move for the lead to the outside entering turn three where he took charge and instantly pulled away to a 10-car-length advantage.
Grant had settled into his groove in second and used the strategy of following Tyler instead of engaging in a cat and mouse game that could wear out his tires. Even though that was the plan and he was going to stick to it, Grant admits his relative lack of experience in Silver Crown compared to Tyler, who has the most starts in series history at 192, didn’t give him complete confidence until he saw the condition of the right rear rubber on Tyler’s car past the halfway mark.
“I haven’t done this long enough to say there’s no question that I’d get back by him,” Grant said. “That was the thought. It’s a long race and my crew said Tyler was running pretty hard to get by us. We just had to let him do his thing. From my view, it looked like his tire was flapping around like it was blistered. That made me a little more confident and I knew I just had to keep the thing straight and not try to catch him. I just needed to run behind him and let him use his stuff up.”
Opportunities to gain positions are abundant on restarts, and on the lap 57 restart, a scramble assumed in the middle of the pack, sending Zach Daum helicoptering down the front straightaway upside down before coming to a rest up against the turn one wall. He would walk away from the frightening accident unscathed.