MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. — Surviving a deflating right-rear tire in the final laps, series points leader Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., narrowly turned back challenger Max Blair on Thursday at Orange County Fair Speedway for his fifth World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series points victory of the season.
Sheppard's tire was virtually on the rim in victory lane as he savored a 40-lap victory in the national tour's first event at the 5/8-mile oval since 2004, the first modern-era season for the circuit.
"It's really cool, a new track, to get a win here," Sheppard said after leading all but five laps in his debut at the big-block modified stronghold. "It's pretty awesome. Any time you can win in New York, that's a long ways from my home, so it's pretty cool."
Blair, who edged ahead of Sheppard on the backstretch with a lap and a half remaining, finished just seven-hundredths of a second behind at the finish in a thrilling duel to the checkers. Tyler Bruening of Decorah, Iowa, who hurriedly entered with a backup car after breaking his engine in heat action, rallied from the tail to third while multidivision star Stewart Friesen of Sprakers, N.Y., and Dan Stone of Thompson, Pa., rounded out the top five.
Two contenders fell by the wayside. Rick Eckert of York, Pa., the WoO winner at at the track in 2004, led the first five laps from outside the front row before he pulled up lame with a broken lift-bar, drawing a fifth-lap caution while ending his race. And Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., was running third on lap 39 when he slowed with fuel pressure issues.
Sheppard had his hands full with both departees. Eckert kept Sheppard in check early, and when the Rocket Chassis house car driver inherited the lead upon Eckert's demise, he had his hands full with Madden, who pulled alongside the leader on the seventh lap in turning up the heat.
Sheppard pulled away from Madden and led more comfortably through the race's middle stages, but the fifth-starting Blair moved into second on a lap-29 restart and put pressure on Sheppard.
On the 32nd lap, Blair cut Sheppard's margin to four-hundredths of a second at the start-finish line, but two laps later Blair slipped high in turn three to give Sheppard some breathing room.
But Blair closed in again before the final caution for Madden's departure, then renewed his charge on the two-to-go restart, edging ahead on the backstretch and keeping the pressure on Sheppard all the way the checkers where he fell just a half length short.
"My right-rear tire was going down the last couple of laps there, and I was really laid over on the right rear," Sheppard said. "Man, he definitely made me work for it. That was a heckuva fun race and I've gotta say thanks to Max for driving me really clean there. It was a lot of fun to race with him."
Blair ran conservatively the first half of the race beforeturning up the wick.
"I don't know who it was, but I seen a flash of somebody on the outside of me halfway through or so, so I said, 'I better move up there and see what we've got.' When I moved up, I felt really good and actually thought maybe I was running (Sheppard and Madden) down a little bit," Blair said. "On that next restart, (Madden) took the bottom and I got in second and I thought, 'Oh man, maybe we've got something here.' "
"(Sheppard) obviously had a tire going down. I think we were pretty good. I don't know when that started going down, but you don't get too many opportunities to race with them guys that hard for the win, so that was a lot of fun."
Bruening was lucky to even make it to the track in time for the green flag, he said.
"Hell, we were putting shocks on the car when they were going four-wide on the racetrack out here. I was just really trying to make the race, to be honest with you, and once we got going, I thought, 'Geez, we've got a pretty good race car.' I just kept slowing working my way and working my way (forward)," Bruening said. "You've gotta have some stuff go your way, too. You know, it didn't go all our way tonight, but we had things in the (feature) go our way, and it helped us and benefitted us. The Skyline Motorsports Capital Race Car was dynamite tonight. We were really good."
Besides the cautions for Eckert (lap five) and Madden (lap 39), three other cautions appeared, including Jim Bernheisel's flat left-tire tire (lap 16) and Ross Robinson's flat right-front tire (lap 29).
The fourth-running Ricky Weiss fell by the wayside on lap 31 when his car apparently broke and abruptly turned right heading into turn three, putting the No. 7 into the wall and out of the race.
Notes: Sheppard tied Darrell Lanigan for second on the all-time WoO list with his 74th career victory. ... Ryan Gustin scratched from the feature after he hit the wall leading his heat race; his car suffered apparent rear-clip damage in the wreck. ... Making his first start since suffering neck and back injuries in a late-March flip at Williams Grove Speedway, Bryan Bernheisel of Jonestown, Pa., was the evening's fastest qualifier and finished 10th in the feature, two spots better than his father Jim. ... Third-year series regular Cade Dillard was not in attendance after dropping off the tour because of a conflict with his daughter's first day of school.