FARMER CITY, Ill. — In victory lane after Brandon Sheppard's $25,000 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victory at Farmer City Raceway, a track where the 30-year-old New Berlin, Ill., is typically at his best, he described the prime track conditions that suited his No. B5.
And then Sheppard dropped the understatement of the century: "I can run the cushion all right, I feel like."
If any home-state fans had any doubt, the 14th-starting Sheppard proved it by overtaking race-long leader Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., on the 47th lap and dominating the rest of the Farmer City 74, the rain-postponed finale of the four-race Illinois Speedweek.
"That was Farmer City right there. That's the Farmer City that I'm used to," Sheppard said after climbing from the car with his third overall victory of 2023. "Big curb up against the wall and slick (racing) all over it in (turns) one and two. It was right on, man. Hat's off to the track crew and hat's off to my team. We've been we've been working our tails off all year and been up and down a lot."
Sheppard took the checkers 1.251 seconds ahead of Gundaker, who started outside the front row and ran virtually unchallenged the first half of the race in seeking his biggest career payday. Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., improved 15 positions in finishing third while 21st-starting Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., and Hudson O'Neal of Martinsville, Ind. — forced pitside by a flat tire while running second on the ninth lap — rallied back to round out the top five, one spot ahead of pole-starting Jimmy Owens of Newport, Tenn.
Gundaker, a regular on the World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series and 2019 DIRTcar Summer Nationals winner at Farmer City, threatened to become the 89th winner on the Lucas Oil circuit for much of the race, cruising out front while Sheppard worked his way forward from his seventh-row starting spot. Sheppard broke into the top five on lap 29, reached second on lap 40 and finally began turning up the heat on the leader in a race postponed to Monday by Friday evening rain.
Gundaker turned back a few challenges, but Sheppard slid ahead entering turn three on the 47th lap, then kept the runner-up in check the rest of the way.
"It took me a couple of laps that kind of get going there. We were a little bit different on tire (choice) than some of them guys, but soon as the cushion started to clean up in (turns) three and four and I could run the bottom really good in (turns) one and two," Sheppard said. "In years past that's kind of been, that's when this place is the most fun, when you can bounce off the cushion in three and four and run the bottom in one or two. So once I knew I could run that bottom down there and then in three and four.
"You know, it's a cushion — I can run the cushion all right, I feel like — so we were able to get around that thing pretty good and we could carry a bunch of speed. I got into Shirley there on the frustrated, so I gotta say sorry to him, but, you know, my car was really fast, so I had to do what I had to do."
Gundaker struggled during a critical stretch that allowed Sheppard to make the winning move.
"I can't hang my head on running second to Brandon and this group of cars, but man, you don't get many chances at $25,000," the 30-year-old said. "Man, I just got tight there for like five laps and just really screwed up. I'm not much of a cushion-banger, as most of you know. I just made a few mistakes and you can't make mistakes against these guys. I saw Brandon down there creeping and just tried to fight him off. I was doing everything I can in the car, just working my ass off. Yeah, you know, I'm bummed, of course you want to win 'em, but like I said, you can't hang your head ...
"We had a great week. You know, making all four of these races is tough in itself, and we did all that and we were up front and all of them. So, yeah, just super, super stoked. I'm really proud of our team. I think nobody really understands the hard work that we put in it. You know, we're not a huge team. And that's, you know, that's fine with me, I love it just the way I am, my family and just thankful for all my great sponsors and the people who have allowed me to get here. I think we're really making a name for ourselves. I think it's gonna be a long time coming, but we're gonna be up on these stages. We'll get one eventually. At least they know we're here, and I'm pumped."
Sheppard, who was on a 44-race winless skid going back to 2022 before his April 30 MARS Championship Series victory at Red Hill Raceway in Sumner, Ill., now has three victories in his last six starts.
"Man, we've been working hard. It's been a long year and I'm just super proud of everybody involved," he said. "But it's just been such a, it's been a really trying year for us and my team ain't got no quit, you know. We ain't gave up one time. We'll just keep plugging away on this thing and learning week in and week out.
"You know, when we were here the other day, we didn't qualify very good and, you know, just kind of hung on there for a fourth place in the heat race and that put us behind. But we're learning every week on this car so we keep getting better, and like I said, I gotta thank all the guys at Longhorn for helping me and keeping me going here."
The 74-lap feature was slowed by six cautions, the first for O'Neal. The second caution dropped on lap 29 when Tim McCreadie had a flat left-rear tire. It wasn't clear if the tire was down before he made contact with Jimmy Owens on the frontstretch, damaging bodywork on both cars.
The third yellow fell for a slowing Ross Robinson on lap 35, then Spencer Hughes slowed for a lap-49 slowdown. The fifth caution appeared on lap 58 when Tyler Erb rolled to a stop exiting turn four and the sixth and final yellow appeared on lap 72 for debris.
Notes: Brandon Sheppard has 27 career full-field Lucas Oil Series victories. ... He's the 11th Lucas Oil winner of 2023. ... Gordy Gundaker led his first-ever laps on the Lucas Oil tour; he was out front the first 46 circuits. ... McKay Wenger lost left-front bodywork on the 32nd lap after making contact with Dennis Erb Jr. exiting turn four as they battled for fifth. Wenger faded to finish 14th. ... Erb started sixth and held the second spot from laps 10-28 before being shuffled back on a restart; he finished seventh ... Hudson O'Neal entered Friday's event as the Lucas Oil Series points leader, but for Monday's return, Brandon Overton was in the top spot by virtue of his fourth-place run Saturday at Fairbury Speedway. With Overton struggling to a 16th-place finish, O'Neal regained command of the title chase ... Garrett Smith of Eatonton, Ga., transferred to Farmer City's main event through a Friday consolation race, but he didn't return, giving up a feature starting spot. ... Among entrants failing to make the feature lineup (some drivers didn't return Monday): Chase Junghans, Mike Spatola, Ryan Gustin, Bob Gardner, Kyle Hammer, Ryan Unzicker and Mike Marlar. ... Farmer City hosts a $5,000-to-win MARS Championship Series event on May 26.