HAMMETT, Pa. (Aug. 20) — A perfect weekend in Pennsylvania has Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., closing in on World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series history.
Sheppard’s victory in Sunday night’s 50-lap feature at Eriez Speedway was his second in as many days in the Keystone State and pushed his 2017 checkered-flag total to 14, putting him within reach of the national tour’s single-season win record of 18 set last year by Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., Sheppard’s predecessor behind the wheel of the Rocket Chassis house car.
“He’s done an incredible job this year,” Rocket house car owner Mark Richards said of Sheppard during Eriez’s victory lane ceremonies. “Whenever Josh decided he was gonna go take that other ride (with Best Performance Motorsports for ’17), we knew (Sheppard) was the guy to fill the seat and he’s lived up to it.”
The 24-year-old sensation had to work hard — and benefit from a dose of good fortune — to score his latest $10,000 triumph, however. After storming to a flag-to-flag win in Saturday night’s 40-lap WoO A-main at Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway, Sheppard didn’t move to the front of the pack at Eriez until the race’s final moments.
Sheppard shot from the fifth starting spot to second place behind outside polesitter Russ King of Bristolville, Ohio, on the feature’s opening lap, but he lost the number two spot to sixth-starter Jared Miley of Pittsburgh, Pa., on a lap-19 restart and proceeded to settle into third place for an extended period. The runaway WoO points leader finally regained second on lap 40 with an inside move on King, who led laps 1-35 until he slid high in turn four and ceded the position to Miley.
Then Sheppard turned up the wick in an attempt to deny fellow XR1 Rocket campaigner Miley a career-first WoO triumph. Sheppard used the bottom lane off turn four to surge ahead and lead lap 46, but Miley was back in the top spot on lap 47 as Sheppard found himself pinned behind a lapped car.
Miley, 31, appeared primed to withstand Sheppard’s charge until disaster struck on lap 48. He lost the handle of his family-owned machine as he followed Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, into turn three and spun between the corners, bringing out the race’s fifth and final caution flag and putting Sheppard in the lead.
Sheppard glided away on the ensuing restart, beating King to the finish line by 1.927 seconds to register his 20th career WoO victory.
Eric Wells of Hazard, Ky., inched forward from the seventh starting spot to finish third despite losing the brakes on his Longhorn Race Car midway through the feature. It was his eight top-five run of the 2017 WoO campaign but first since a fifth on July 14 at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, N.D.
Polesitter Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., settled for a fourth-place finish in his Black Diamond mount that marked his third top-five WoO outing in August and Max Blair of Centerville, Pa., who won his first-ever WoO feature on June 20 at McKean County Raceway in East Smethport, Pa., advanced from the 12th starting spot to place fifth in his XR1 Rocket.
Sheppard acknowledged that while he once again possessed a stout car, he needed to catch a break to log back-to-back WoO wins for the third time this season.
“The track was just starting to clean up a little bit there, and the more the track was cleaning up, the better our car was getting,” said Sheppard, who has 11 more chances to win the five races that would gain him the tour’s single-season win record. “I was able to drive straight, kind of through the middle-bottom of the track where them guys (Miley and King) were running a little bit higher than I was. I could catch that brown coming off the corner a little bit … I don’t know if them guys weren’t seeing that down there or what the deal was, but we were definitely getting better.
“I was right on Jared when he got into that lapped car, but I don’t know if I would’ve been able to pass him or not,” he added. “Tonight the luck was on our side.”
King, 28, didn’t have sufficient speed in his XR1 Rocket to seriously bid for his first-ever WoO win after losing the lead to Miley, but the tour’s 2009 Rookie of the Year was pleased with his career-best finish on the series.
“I knew if I could get out a little (early in the race) and get clear of Brandon to get my momentum in the middle we were gonna be OK,” King said. “Then I didn’t see him for awhile and I kind of rode around and was all right, but I caught lapped traffic and I kind of went the wrong way a couple times and got my tires hot and I felt myself giving up from there. That’s what separates these guys that do this all the time — they can keep themselves under control and not make mistakes, not get their tires hot and then start struggling.
“We’re getting closer,” he continued. “It’s taken me like 10 years to get to this point, so maybe in another 10 we might win one.”
Prior to the final caution flag for Miley’s spin, the feature was slowed on lap one; lap nine for a turn-four spin by fifth-place Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga.; lap nine for damage to the nose of the car driven by Steve Kania of Erie, Pa.; and lap 19 for a turn-one spin by Bump Hedman of Sugar Grove, Pa.
Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., remained second in the WoO points standings — albeit an enormous 278 points behind Sheppard — after finishing 11th because a flat left-rear tire forced him to relinquish fifth place and pit during the caution period for Kania.