Fast Talk presented by Castrol Oil
Fast Talk: B-Shepp's skills and DTWC preview
Our roundtable considers a weekend where Brandon Sheppard captured a pair of five-figure paydays in MARS Racing Series competition in his home state of Illinois, and we look ahead to upcoming fall action in our weekly feature presented by Castrol (edited for clarity and length):
Did Brandon Sheppard win with the fastest car one night and not the fastest car the next?
Kevin Kovac, DirtonDirt.com senior writer: Sheppard was undoubtedly dominant at Fairbury; how often does a driver lead from flag-to-flag with no hint of last-lap drama there? His La Salle win, though, seemed to be sort of a mixed bag. He pulled away quickly after finally overtaking Chris Simpson for the lead with four laps to go, but it took some fancy driving for him to gain command. Of course, that’s the point with Sheppard — he just keeps digging and, if at all possible, finds a way. Let me add this: remember when people used to say B-Shepp appeared mortal when he ran his family-owned car? With nine wins (and 12 podiums) in 15 starts with the No. B5 this year, that idea has been crushed.
Todd Turner, DirtonDirt.com managing editor: That’s the sign of an outstanding driver, right? He looked unbeatable at Fairbury, but during most of the La Salle feature, his car appeared to be a tick off from Chris Simpson and Rusty Schlenk, whose unfortunate demise perhaps robbed us of a three-car battle down to the finish. If you’re winning 30 races a year, it’s unlikely you have the fastest car every time … the best racers gut it out, adjust to adverse circumstances or will their way to victories, too.
Robert Holman, DirtonDirt.com weekend editor: How many times have we watched a race with Sheppard seemingly not in the picture, only to see him emerge in the waning laps and steal away with a victory? Sometimes it’s not clear whether or not Sheppard is going all out or if he’s just sitting there patiently lurking until his tires come in and he can really go. Obviously at La Salle, if he was waiting, he cut it really close, but he still proved once again that you just can never count him out.
Joshua Joiner, DirtonDirt.com staff writer: I think that’s a pretty accurate way to describe it. Sheppard seemed in complete control of Saturday’s feature at Fairbury while Josh Richards had to really hustle his car to keep up and tried just about every line combination possible in a futile effort to rundown the steady Sheppard. On Sunday, Sheppard was the one doing everything he could to will his car to the front. And he did it twice, rallying in the final three laps of his heat race to catch and pass Ryan Unzicker for a dramatic prelim win before doing it yet again in the closing laps of the feature to overtake Chris Simpson for the win. It seemed as though Sheppard just simply wasn’t going to be denied. Whether his car was the fastest or not, he was taking it to the front on sheer will and determination.
Dustin Jarrett, DirtonDirt.com staffer: There's no doubt Sheppard had the fastest car and likely the most maneuverable car Saturday at Fairbury. And if he wasn't the fastest car Sunday at LaSalle, he was right there. In the race-long battle for the lead between Chris Simpson and Rusty Schlenk, Sheppard always seemed to be lurking and ready to pounce. I kept watching and thinking he was going to work his way into the lead at some point, but I didn't expect it happen like it did. It's hard to say what would have happened had Schlenk not been caught up in that accident, but I still think Shepp would have been contending for the win either way.
Tout another weekend winner.
Turner: Christian Thomas of Wake Forest, N.C., continued his career-best season by capturing the richest FUEL race so far this season at Fayetteville, N.C., in earning $5,000. He’s got multiple special event victories this season and is making the Sewell Logging No. 06 one of the most potent cars in the region.
Joiner: Brian Shirley was the only driver to beat Sheppard this weekend with his victory in Friday’s weekend opener at Peoria Speedway. The win was Shirley’s first since his previous visit to Peoria in late August when he swept a MARS doubleheader there. After that, Shirley endured an incredible string of bad luck with three straight weekends of engine woes in September forcing him to take nearly a month off to regroup and re-equip his Bob Cullen-backed team. I’m not sure how much more racing Shirley plans to do in 2020, but Friday’s win combined with a solid showing the rest of the weekend, was a great way tp wash away September’s frustrations before heading into the winter.
Jarrett: Billy Moyer Jr.'s triumph at Wheatland jumped out at me. It was a much-needed win for BMJ, who has chased his tail for the better part of 2020 and has been working hard to find the speed (and luck) he's been looking for. I talk to him frequently and I know the grind of the road is tough — even tougher when you're not winning. So to roll into Lucas Oil Speedway and beat a talented field is a great shot in the arm for that driver and team.
Kovac: Ryan Gustin’s $3,000 victory in Friday’s MLRA Fall Nationals opener at Lucas Oil Speedway — his second straight MLRA checkered flag — continued his strong late-season results. Gustin and the Tri-Star Engines & Transmissions team have experienced some setbacks this season in Gustin’s return to regular Dirt Late Model racing (including a shop fire that nearly wiped out their cars and Gustin’s mid-summer brush with Covid-19), but the resources are there for Gustin to flash his immense talent to the full-fender world. It’s nice to see them building some momentum for what could be a much bigger 2021 campaign.
Holman: It’s hard not to give Billy Moyer Jr. some love, right? As D.J. mentioned, he got a much-needed victory with his $5,000 MLRA triumph at Lucas Oil Speedway. I feel like BMJ would probably click off 10-12 wins a year if he had a regional schedule or an outlaw schedule, but Moyer Jr. is making a living at the highest level of our sport, so there’s something to be said for that. On a weekend hampered by Mother Nature, it should also be noted that Matt Cosner picked up his first career Zimmer’s United Late Model Series victory in the tour’s first-ever visit to Greater Cumberland (Md.) Raceway.
Does it appear to you that some tracks are extending seasons and adding specials to make up for lost time?
Holman: Absolutely. After the two-month lull in the spring, it’s been extremely busy since mid-summer. Along with the already scheduled events that were postponed or pushed back because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems like some promoters have thrown their hands in the air and used the coronavirus crisis to suddenly have free rein to schedule or shuffle events at will. It’s madness really. It’s like the wild, wild West of event scheduling. You never know what’s going to pop up. In a 24-hour stretch last week I went from not having a race to go to in November to potentially have an event for three straight weekends and by the end of the year, I’ll have gone to more events than in any of my first three seasons with DirtonDirt.
Jarrett: It's certainly a trend that I've noticed and, for the most part, it doesn't seem to be a bunch of special events. Rather, several tracks that have typically ended their season when high school football kicks off are running more regular shows into October. Despite our sport now having zero offseason, it's a welcome site after the struggles of 2020. From a business standpoint, you rarely make money on a regular show in September and October, so I applaud these promoters for giving fans the opportunity to catch a few more races.
Joiner: I don’t know if I would call it extending the season because we were already to the point that there’s hardly an offseason anymore. I do think there are a couple of differences this year that make it seem busier than years past. First, because of the uncertainty around coronavirus restrictions, some promoters have been slower than usual to firm up plans for big late-season events (East Alabama and its National 100 being a prime example). Second, the compressed season has forced promoters to race on weekends they normally wouldn’t. For example, both the MLRA and Southern All Stars are holding their season finales against the DTWC this weekend. That’s something they don’t normally do, but both tours have raced later into the year in past seasons.
Turner: It’s interesting to see how tracks and series dealt with the difficult coronavirus-hampered season. It appears some threw their hands up and just decided to wait until next year, while others made the most of a bad situation and worked even harder to have successful seasons. Racing succeeded in part because, especially earlier in the year, it was one of the few sports continuing with limited entertainment options for folks. Hence big crowds. Plenty of tracks always try to extend the season provided weather allows, and perhaps even moreso this year after the loss of many early-season events.
Kovac: There are some tracks racing a bit later in the autumn than usual to recoup some of the lost race dates from the spring, and why not? In many places, this fall weather seems to be much better than the often ugly spring conditions. What’s more, high school football isn’t the competitor it normally is for so many racetracks after Labor Day; if scholastic football is being played, in most locales attendance is restricted. Pennsylvania’s Lernerville Speedway is a good example. They’ve continued Friday racing later into the season than usual. It’s just part of this figure-it-out-as-you-go year.
With Silly Season ramping up soon, what drivers or teams do you expect to be in the mix?
Joiner: With Clint Bowyer recently announcing his retirement from the NASCAR Cup Series to become an analyst for Fox Sports, I can’t help but wonder how that might affect his Dirt Late Model team and driver Josh Richards. Hopefully it will lead him to focus more time and energy on his dirt team and maybe even expand it. If Bowyer scales back his dirt team and Richards were on the market, that would certainly make for an interesting development.
Jarrett: Usually by this time of year, I've caught wind of some changes for the upcoming season. Admittedly, though, that's not the case this year and everything seems to be mostly status quo. Hudson O'Neal's name seems to come up most often in the conversation. Best Performance has mentioned multiple times that Tyler Erb is staying put. Despite Clint Bowyer retiring from NASCAR, it looks as though he's staying in dirt track racing with driver Josh Richards. The biggest offseason moves we're likely to see are a couple national touring series drivers switching tours and, in some cases, guys simply dropping off and running their own schedule.
Kovac: It’s difficult to make predictions on where the movement will be; there could be — are often are — teams with inner strife we don’t know about that, and as a result driver changes pop up unexpectedly. Certainly there will be some Silly Season action that is surprising, but I sense that much of it will involve next year’s national tour rosters. The World of Outlaws have announced a purse increase for 2020 which could attract some newcomers. I’ll definitely be watching to see if Brandon Overton makes national touring series plans and if Scott Bloomquist continues chasing the WoO circuit or switches to a pick-and-choose schedule. Also, keep an eye on Hudson O’Neal: rumors have been swirling that he might follow Shanon Buckingham as the driver of Roger Sellers’s Double Down Motorsports car on the Lucas Oil tour, but no announcement has yet been made.
Turner: My bet right now would be a quieter Silly Season than usual, but I could be eating my words in a few weeks when things go crazy. There aren’t obvious teams seeking drivers, but perhaps we’ll have new team or two get into the national touring mix. Not sure Shane Clanton’s shift to the Lucas Oil Series will stick for 2021 … and where will Kyle Hardy eventually end up? Not that the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show always had a lot of official announcements — most news leaked ahead of that December event — but no Indy shoulder-rubbing will give Silly Season a little different feel this time around.
Holman: I don’t see as many moves out there this season as we have had in the past. We are in mid-October and it’s still relatively quiet. I’m curious to see more than anything how the national tour rosters will shape up. I’m not sure Shane Clanton with still with the Lucas Oil Series and I’m really interested to see the long-term plans of Brandon Overton and Chris Madden. Otherwise, I think we just have to sit back and see what unfolds.
Preview Portsmouth's General Tire Dirt Track World Championship, which at $100,000 offers the richest winner’s purse of 2020.
Jarrett: I was just talking to someone about the DTWC this weekend at Fairbury and we both had the same thought: I'm not sure if we should expect 50 cars, 100 cars, or something in between. Usually we have a pretty good read on that, but I honestly think this event could have one of the highest car counts of the season. Of course, in typical DTWC fashion, the weather is in the 70s all week but sinks to the mid 50s on Friday and Saturday. Brandon Sheppard and Josh Richards are likely to be among the frontrunners, and I'm gonna predict Sheppy gets his fourth win in the prestigious race.
Holman: With his record at Portsmouth, it’s hard not to immediately point to Brandon Sheppard as the odds-on favorite to win his fourth DTWC. But of course Josh Richards has won two of the last three and he’s having a resurgent season of sorts, so I suspect he will also be a factor. Then toss in 2020’s typical players — Jimmy Owens, Brandon Overton and Tim McCreadie — and I think you have an event that could prove to be as wide open as we’ve seen in quite a while. I don’t think anyone would be surprised if one of those five won the race. But I also don’t think you can count out guys like Chris Madden, Ricky Weiss or Zack Dohm. I think it’s going to be a fun weekend.
Turner: If Brandon Sheppard wins, that wraps up the Driver of the Year discussion right? It’s hard to bet against him with three DTWC victories at Portsmouth, including last season, but maybe we could hope for a three-way battle among Sheppard, Jimmy Owens and Brandon Overton. My pick? Josh Richards wins for the third time in four years.
Kovac: The DTWC screams “autumn” to me, so I definitely feel like I’m now fully in the season with a fall foliage-filled trip to Portsmouth on tap this weekend. Unfortunately, we don’t get to relish a dramatic Lucas Oil Series championship battle thanks to Jimmy Owens’s spectacular season having already clinched him a fourth career title, but the biggest financial windfall in Dirt Late Model racing offers its own intrigue. You probably wouldn’t have found many people a few months ago who thought the DTWC would pay 100-grand to win this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, but promoter Carl Short is still paying the big bucks, so he deserves a pat on the back. As for a prediction, I’m with Todd here: Josh Richards wins it again. He’s been looking especially sporty lately and is always strong at Portsmouth, so I feel like it’s his turn to bag a major this year.
Joiner: For much of the season, Brandon Sheppard, Brandon Overton and Jimmy Owens have swapped the sport’s hottest driver label with no clear favorite. Since August, Tim McCreadie has inserted himself into that shuffle as well. Can one of them cement his spot at the top by winning this year’s biggest race? Jonathan Davenport and Josh Richards have both been just a step below this season’s elite level. Can one of them get a big win and add some serious luster to campaigns that have otherwise been good but not great? Or can a mid-level driver like Chris Ferguson, Zack Dohm or Josh Rice turn a standout season into something really special? That’s just a few of the storylines to watch.