Justin Grant Rules Southern Illinois Center

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Justin Grant (39) battles Christopher Bell Saturday night at the Southern Illinois Center. (David Sink photo)

DUQUOIN, Ill. — Thus far, 2017 is becoming the year of Justin Grant.

The record books were rewritten in Saturday night’s Shamrock Classic USAC Midget National Championship season-opener at the Southern Illinois Center as Grant became the first driver in the 62-year history of the organization to record season-opening feature victories in both the national sprint car and national midget divisions in the same year.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment for Grant, a driver who readily admits that his racing career was floundering less than a year ago.

“Last summer, I was sitting on the couch,” Grant recalls. “I wasn’t doing much racing. I couldn’t beg my way into a racecar. From then ’til now, it’s just incredible. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up from a dream and it’s not going to be real.”

The dream is now reality for the 26-year-old Grant as he gladly accepted a fortuitous bout of Irish luck with 17 laps remaining when Christopher Bell saw his chance of winning fade into the haze as the lapped cars of Korey Weyant and Chris Andrews tangled in front of him on the high side of turn four. Bell became trapped in a box with the two stalled cars and the outside retaining wall surrounding him as he looked for an escape.

Just moments before, second-running Grant had decided to take his shot at Bell and the lead. Just seconds later, the move proved to be a wise one as he avoided the mayhem and came away with the lead on the ensuing restart.

“It was just kind of a chance deal,” Grant believes. “I’d been kind of shadowing him, waiting and waiting for lapped traffic to try and take a shot at him. I thought the top was slowing down enough that I could maybe make a move on the bottom if he caught some lapped traffic on the top. As soon as we caught that pack of cars on the top, I dove to the bottom in turn three to try and take a shot and capitalize. It just happened to work out for me with those guys crashing right in front of him. I don’t know why I picked that lap to do it or why it worked out that way, but I’ll take it.”

On the lap-34 restart, a new, but familiar member joined the fray at the front of the field in the name of defending Shamrock Classic winner Shane Golobic.

Golobic, originally beginning the 50-lap feature from the 14th spot, busted his way from fifth to second in quick fashion when action resumed. Soon enough, Golobic was right on the tail of Grant for the lead with 12 laps to go until clipping the berm on the inside of turn two. That dropped Golobic back a bit as Grant began to create a bit of separation between he and his CMR teammate.

In the final five circuits, Golobic had reeled Grant in as the two weaved their way through the tail end of the field. The two dipped and dove between the lapped cars of Weyant and Daniel Adler as the pair threaded through the eye of a needle in a game of racing limbo to see who could be the first to get the lowest on the racing surface.

“I caught sight of Shane (Golobic) off the middle of (turns) three and four. I kind of got a run back around him off the cushion of (turn) four. I knew he started real deep and if he’d come from that far back on the bottom, I knew I needed to get back to the bottom in a hurry. I had just enough to get back by him off (turn) four and shut him down on the bottom getting into (turn) one. From there on out, it’s about not missing the bottom and not getting caught up on the berm. Once it started laying rubber, I knew if I didn’t get out of the rubber, he wasn’t going to be able to get by me. Catching lapped cars and rubber is highly frustrating. You can’t get out of it to get around him and they’re not going to get out of it. You just have to settle in, follow, stay in it and hope you’re not a sitting duck.”

Grant never flinched as Golobic swarmed Grant’s tail tank coming to the checkered flag to no avail, providing Grant his first career USAC National Midget victory in his Clauson-Marshall Racing/Driven 2 Save Lives – Priority Aviation/Spike/Stanton SR-11 over Golobic, Jerry Coons Jr., Brady Bacon and Brent Beauchamp.