FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. — Nobody needed to tell Brandon Sheppard what to do in the final moments of Friday’s 50-lap Milton Hershey School Back to Class Showdown at Mississippi Thunder Speedway. He had all the information necessary flashing in front of him.
“I seen the 32 on the board up there (between turns three and four),” Sheppard said of his fellow Land of Lincoln driver Bobby Pierce. “And not too long before that I seen him in the infield so I knew I better get my elbows up there because I knew he was coming for sure.”
Sheppard, 30, of New Berlin, Ill., never relinquished the lead once he overtook race-long pacesetter Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., on lap 17. But to hold for his second straight World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series victory and a $20,000 top prize, the four-time tour champion had to withstand a furious rally from the rear by Oakwood, Ill.’s Pierce, who, after pitting on lap 14 to repair body damage and change a cut tire, charged through the pack to reach second place on lap 43 and doggedly chase Sheppard over the remaining circuits.
The 25-year-old Pierce’s bid for another spectacular triumph fell short, however, as Sheppard turned up the wick to beat the WoO points leader by 1.031 seconds.
Ryan Gustin of Marshalltown, Iowa, finished third after ducking underneath Sheppard several times while holding second place for laps 29-42. Kyle Bronson of Brandon, Fla., advanced from the ninth starting spot to finish fourth in his debut run behind the wheel of a new Longhorn Chassis and Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., completed the top five.
Shirley, who led laps 1-16 off the pole position, faded to finish sixth.
Sheppard started the race alongside Shirley on the front row and followed his buddy through the early stages, unwilling to force the issue in order to move in front on the 3/8-mile oval. He finally assumed command on lap 17 with a slider through turns one and two once the track surface came to him.
“Shirley set a really good pace there at the beginning,” Sheppard said. “He was going a little bit harder than I wanted to go. The track was really dirty at the beginning and I was worried I was gonna hurt my tire the first 10 laps. I kind of let him go for awhile, and then I got a smooth lane up top where I wasn’t spinning the tires that much and I got a run on him, so I had an opportunity there and I took it.”
Sheppard’s work was far from done, however. He had to deal with five of the feature’s six caution flags over the remaining distance — not to mention Gustin and Pierce, who proved to be formidable foes.
“I kept seeing Gustin on the bottom,” Sheppard said. “But my guys weren’t telling me anything different (regarding a lane-change), so I was like, ‘Well, ride it out here (around the outside) and see what happens,’ but obviously Bobby was right there on the top with me too (in the final laps).”
Pierce put on a never-say-die performance to go down swinging. Mirroring Sheppard’s top-side line, he drew within a couple car lengths of the leader with four laps remaining and appeared primed to throw a bomb at B-Shepp — a prospect that Sheppard of course was expecting.
In fact, Sheppard was so keenly anticipating a last-ditch move from Pierce that he didn’t let a strange sensation inside his Sheppard Riggs Racing Longhorn car slow him down.
“I thought I felt my right-rear tire going down,” Sheppard said. “I wasn’t really sure the last part of the race. I got pretty good there and then I felt like I was laid over a little bit, but I just floored it because I knew the 32 was back there and I knew if he had an opportunity he was gonna slide me for sure.”
Sheppard was too close to another victory to let it slip through his fingers.
“We’ve had an up and down year but it’s starting to come around,” said Sheppard, who registered his long-awaited first WoO triumph of 2023 just six days earlier with a $30,000 score at Davenport (Iowa) Speedway. “It’s all hats off to the Longhorn guys and Bilstein (Shocks) and my great crew behind me working their tails off. This thing’s been a dream to drive the past few months. We really got a program that works really well for me.
“We’ve just a real consistent race car the past couple of months here. We’re still not qualifying quite as well as we need to so we’ve got plenty of room for improvement, but when the track gets slick at feature time we got a really good race car and we’re really balanced.”
After winning five times in seven WoO starts during the month of August, Pierce didn’t add to his hot streak. His recovery from a slow start in qualifying and a lap-14 incident, however, buoyed his spirits and kept him atop the WoO standings by 122 points over Madden and 134 over Sheppard.
“I was very down in the dumps for sure after qualifying,” said Pierce, who timed 22nd-fastest in the 30-car field. “We missed it, I missed it pretty bad. Going out late really wasn’t the issue tonight because Shirley and (Nick) Hoffman both laid down good laps and they were like right there with me (in the order), so we just missed the setup a little bit. This track was pretty hard tonight.
“The heat race we weren’t great either, and then the feature, it was a very, very fine, treacherous line up there, and that’s the kind of stuff I like. I’m just gonna go send it.”
Pierce was working his way forward from the 16th starting spot on lap 14 when, just as he had cracked the top 10, he ran into Tyler Erb’s slowing car. The contact sent Pierce to the pits with a crushed right-side door and a flat right-front tire while Erb also pitted with a shredded right-rear tire on his brand-new MB Customs Race Car.
“Terbo’s engine shut off there and I had nowhere to go,” Pierce said. “I thought that ended our night, but the crew did a great job getting this thing pieced back together, got the tire on it. The door was like dragging the ground, but they did the best job they could. It’s just awesome to salvage a great points night out of this deal.
“Congrats to Brandon on the win,” he continued. “I was catching him and he really got up on the wheel hard, did what he had to do. The guys said when I pulled in with the damage my right-rear tire was already killed, so it was just hammer down, sending it, leaning against the wall to get some boost and go.”
Gustin posted a solid run to third from the eighth starting spot in his Rocket Chassis but wished he'd performed better early.
“Qualifying is what it all amounts to,” Gustin said. “If we can get qualifying down and start on the front row of a heat race I feel like we would’ve been right there.
“We were really good around the bottom but it just got so fast around the top, and it seemed like every time something was gonna fall our way a yellow would come out. But that’s racing, that’s how it goes.”
Six caution flags dotted the race, including slowdowns for Jordan Yaggy (laps 19 and 38), Dustin Sorensen (lap 29), Shane Clanton (spin on lap 38) and Jake Timm (lap 40).
Notes: Sheppard, who recorded his series-leading 83rd career WoO victory, won earlier this season at Mississippi Thunder when he captured a semifeature on May 4 to kick off the track’s Dairyland Showdown. The next two nights of the spring weekend were rained out, however, canceling the $50,000-to-win event and prompting track and series officials to add Friday’s holiday-weekend return visit to the speedway. … Cade Dillard, who also won a semifeature at Mississippi Thunder on May 4, set fast time in qualifying and ran as high as fourth in the feature before settling for an eighth-place finish. … Chad Mahder of Bloomer, Wis., lost control of his car and flipped during hot laps. He was unhurt his night was over. … The WoO tour’s Labor Day weekend doubleheader concludes Saturday with another $20,000-to-win program at Deer Creek Speedway in Spring Valley, Minn.