LINCOLN, Ill. — Hudson O’Neal’s most heart-throbbing moment Thursday at Lincoln Speedway didn’t even come during green flag competition.
Less than a half a circuit away from the checkers in round two of Illinois Speedweeks, the Martinsville, Ind., came mere feet away from clobbering a spun-around Ricky Thornton Jr., who drew the race’s final caution on the last lap.
"I didn’t know if I was going to get it (slowed) up,” O’Neal said. “It was close. My butt was puckered.”
O’Neal’s heart rate was likely higher than normal throughout the 50-lap Castrol FloRacing Night in America feature, though, as he held off a charging Brandon Sheppard down the stretch for the $23,023 victory. Sheppard, who finished 0.879 of a second behind, nearly erased O’Neal’s 2.6-second lead in the closing laps rallying around the top of the quarter-mile.
But even with his predecessor looming large, the Rocket House car driver never cracked under pressure en route to his sixth overall victory of the 2023 season, which should only strengthen his grip atop DirtonDirt.com's Top 25 poll.
“The track changed so fast, I really thought the top was going to be there the whole time,” O’Neal said. “I was running second behind Tyler (Erb), and I tried the bottom that one time. I was like, dang, it’s pretty good down here. I rolled it and rolled it, and whenever it came time to move to that bottom, I wasn’t very excited about it.
“That cushion was getting treacherous,” O’Neal added. “It was just difficult to hit. My guys … they work hard to give me a great race car to be able to move around all over the racetrack and get by lapped cars. Man, it was a fun race. I don’t know how it was for you fans, but, man, it was awesome on my end. That’s what a driver dreams of, is to be able to have a race like that.”
Overall, O’Neal led the final 41 laps, taking the lead for good when sneaking around pole-starting Tyler Erb rounding the backstretch on lap nine. Erb, who led the opening nine laps, faded to finish seventh while Sheppard turned up the intensity from the seventh-starting spot.
Sheppard didn’t make the bulk of his moves until after the race’s first caution for Garrett Smith on lap 21. The New Berlin, Ill., driver made his way to fifth prior to the restart with 29 laps to go, setting up his advancement to second around Jonathan Davenport on lap 33.
While roughly 2.5 seconds separated O’Neal and Sheppard, no slower cars stood between them. That allowed Sheppard to ramp up his pace around the top and ultimately chop the deficit to a few lengths with 10 laps remaining.
“I was giving it all she had for sure,” Sheppard said. “Hudson and them guys have been really fast. Congratulations to them. We had a really fast car tonight.”
Two crucial mistakes doomed Sheppard’s chances in a five-lap span down the stretch on Thursday — the first with 10 laps left when he got tight through turns one and two, and the dagger being with six laps left when he smacked the outside the wall in turn four.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t steer getting into the corner a little bit,” Sheppard said. “That was kind of hurting me in the slick by getting across to the exit. Overall, the car was really good. I could run the bottom, middle, top, wherever I needed to go. Got to second there, tracking them down, and then jumped the cushion (with six laps left). That was pretty much the end of the race for me.”
Thursday’s outing adds to Sheppard’s upswing lately. In the last six races, Sheppard’s only finished outside the top-two once: his eighth-place run in Wednesday’s Illinois Speedweek opener at Spoon River Speedway in Banner, Ill.
“We’re definitely not hanging our heads about that,” Sheppard said of Thursday’s runner-up. “Hopefully we can get the rest of these races in this weekend and get us one.”
As for Jonathan Davenport, he chalks up yet another podium run that never created enough speed to challenge for the lead. Davenport started fourth and ran as low as fifth in the opening 10 laps. He made his way to second on lap 20 and stayed there until lap 31 when Sheppard came unto the scene.
Though it’s not a memorable performance, it’s good enough to maintain Davenport’s third-place standing in Castrol points, now nine markers behind leader Mike Marlar.
“We went soft on tires tonight. I couldn’t leave the bottom, Davenport said. “I could hardly leave the bottom down the straightaways. I couldn’t get steered back to it. That’s awesome. Three different tire combinations once again in the top-three cars just like last night. Hats off to Hoosier for giving us some options, and the Flo series for giving us all three tires here also.”
Notes: Thursday stood as Hudson O’Neal’s second career Castrol FloRacing Night in America victory, adding to last May’s series triumph at Marshalltown (Iowa) Speedway. ... Wednesday’s Illinois Speedway round one winner at Spoon River Speedway, Dennis Erb Jr., failed to qualify for the main event when he fell one spot short of transferring in the first B-main. … Max Blair failed to qualify for Thursday’s feature after a wreck in heat race competition prompted the No. 111 Briggs Transport team to scratch for the night. … Among other failing to qualify: Billy Moyer, Brian Shirley, Jason Feger, Boom Briggs, Chase Junghans and Drake Troutman. … Thursday’s 50-lapper marked the highest-paying event in Lincoln history. … Two cautions slowed a main event that lasted 18 minutes.