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Fairbury American Legion Speedway

Notes: Texan's chance at FALS redemption fades

July 29, 2017, 12:12 pm
By Kevin Kovac
DirtonDirt.com senior writer

FAIRBURY, Ill. (July 28) — Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, was seemingly in perfect position to bid for a $2,500 victory in Friday night’s second 25-lap Prairie Dirt Classic qualifying feature at Fairbury American Legion Speedway — and, in the process, gain a prime starting spot for Saturday evening’s 100-lap finale and win over at least some of the quarter-mile track’s fans he alienated with a driving mistake one year ago. | RaceWire

But on lap five the 20-year-old Erb’s fleet XR1 Rocket car jerked and abruptly fell off the pace rounding turns one and two as he ran in second place, forcing him out out of action and completely changing the trajectory of his weekend.

“It’s just a parts failure,” Erb said while sitting snugly inside the right-rear corner of his machine making repairs to its rearend in Fairbury’s pit area. “First it broke a torque arm, and then it was like a chain-reaction. A big domino hit a little domino — this broke (pointing to the torque arm), which broke the driveshaft, which bent the J-bar and possibly our shocks.”

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Erb, who expressed little doubt about his prospects in the preliminary race when asked afterward how strong his car was.

“Good enough to beat (Shane) Clanton,” Erb said of the leader at the time of his retirement and eventual winner. “We were five laps in and I was in second, so I think we were in good shape. I hadn’t even started ripping the cushion yet. I’m telling you, when I started ripping the cushion, it was gonna be game over.”

Erb smiled from underneath his car as he uttered those confident words, but he certainly appeared primed to give Clanton a run for the top prize. The second-year World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series traveler had quickly advanced from the fifth starting spot and still felt there was more speed in his No. 91.

Alas, Erb never had a chance to turn up the pressure on Clanton. As a result, he said he will fall back on his WoO provisional — he’s currently tied for second in the points standings with Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C. — rather than attempt a charge from deep in a B-main field on Saturday night and start at the rear of the $30,000-to-win PDC headliner. He’s not ruling out the possibility that he could still finally claim his coveted first-ever WoO triumph (he owns five runner-up finishes already this season), but he pledged that he won’t lose his composure and try any moves like the one he made in last year’s PDC non-qualifiers’ race that sent Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., flipping in turn one and destroyed Erb’s popularity with the FALS crowd.

“I’ll throw big sliders, but I ain’t gonna try to flip nobody,” Erb said when asked how he’ll approach the 100-lapper starting from deep in the field. “I’m gonna try to put on a show, though.”

B-Shepp’s triumphant return

Last year’s Prairie Dirt Classic was rough on Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill. Because he was ineligible to compete in the WoO-sanctioned event while serving a suspension for a tire-related infraction the previous month at Eldora Speedway’s Dream, he sat home while his home state’s richest show was happening and watched the highlights later on DirtonDirt.com.

This season the 24-year-old Sheppard is in the PDC’s field again — and after recording an impressive victory in Friday night’s third 25-lap qualifying feature, he just might have stamped himself as the favorite to claim the 100-lap feature’s $30,000 top prize on Saturday evening.

“I missed it for sure,” Sheppard said when asked after Friday qualifying program about sitting out the 2016 PDC. “It was just a bad deal for sure (that resulted in the penalty). I’m just glad to be back — and back in full swing, too.”

Indeed, Sheppard loudly announced his return to PDC action, surging from fourth to first to capture the preliminary race. He seemed to come alive as soon as Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., made an attempt to pass him for fourth on lap nine.

“He just got underneath me so I knew I had to get going,” Sheppard said. “I was trying to feel it out and see where I could run and couldn’t run, just kind of feel my car out for (Saturday) night really. Pierce kind of threw a slider on me a little bit and I knew I had to get up on the wheel and get going. I just started hammering on it at that point.”

Driving the same Rocket Chassis house car that Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., steered to victory in last year’s PDC, Sheppard pulled off the move of the night when he squeezed between race-long leader Chris Madden and the outside wall off turn two to assume command for good.

“No, there wasn’t much room,” Sheppard said of his daredevil pass. “I seen a gap there and I was like, ‘Man, I probably should let off, but this might be my only chance,’ so I just went for it.”

Sheppard’s three previous WoO-sanctioned PDC appearances resulted in an eighth-place finish (2013), a DNQ (’14) and a third (’15). He’s reached victory lane before at Fairbury, however, winning the track’s 2016 UMP DIRTcar Summernationals event.

Pierce on the charge

While Bobby Pierce might have been responsible for awakening Brandon Sheppard in Friday night’s third 25-lap qualifying feature, the 20-year-old sensation authored a noteworthy performance himself to finish second in the prelim and earn a berth in Saturday evening’s redraw for the top eight starting spots in the 100-lap PDC finale.

Pierce started fifth in the qualifier and lost a position at the initial green flag, but he battled back to reach second place with a lap-21 pass of Chris Madden and flashed under the checkered flag 0.978 of a second behind Sheppard.

“In qualifying, my nose bar was stuck in the (right-front) tire,” Pierce said of his pedestrian results in time trials that left him with some cars to pass in the 25-lapper. “It’s happened before and it just makes it to where it feels like there’s no power steering, so I had to muscle through qualifying. Then, starting third row inside, I kind of got shuffled back a spot and by the time I got up (to the top of the track) I was in sixth.”

Pierce said Fairbury’s surface was “choppy, definitely a get-up-on-the-wheel racetrack,” and that’s how he raced. He lap-nine attempt to pass Sheppard for fourth didn’t work and actually propelled B-Shepp forward, but Pierce wasn’t too far behind the eventual winner the rest of the way.

“Whatever hole he found and went through, I kind of followed him,” said Pierce, whose career-best WoO-sanctioned PDC finish is third, in 2013 (he failed to qualify in ’14, didn’t enter in ’15 and placed 22nd last year after his charge from 22nd to second ended when he rolled his car onto its side in turn four). “Finally, Sheppard went around Madden and I went around Madden (for second), and from there I was in a redraw spot so I kind of just tried to hang on for that.

“The last couple laps I could’ve tried really hard to catch (Sheppard) and do some thing, but with how rough it was … heck, (Shannon) Babb was leading his heat race (the second qualifier) and knocked the wall down (in turn two) and (fourth prelim winner Mike) Marlar was leading his heat and hit the wall (off turn two), so that shows you how hard it was out there and how choppy it was. It didn’t really look that bad from the stands, but inside the car it was just so hard-packed out there that every single little hole — and there was a lot of them — you felt ‘em.

“It was a racy track, though,” he added. “It was a Fairbury cushion, and that’s what makes the place exciting, too.”

Slip costs O’Neal dearly

Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., stood inside his trailer following Friday night’s action and could only shake his head at his fate. He lost a battle with Fairbury’s turn-two cushion on lap 17 of the fourth 25-lap qualifying feature, eliminating him just as he had thrust himself into the mix for a transfer spot after starting 10th.

“Actually, we had a pretty good hot rod,” O’Neal said of his Clint Bowyer Racing Club 29 Race Car. “It was getting to be quite a race right there (for the fourth and final qualifying position) and I just got a little bit too high off of two. It was treacherous anyway — I about busted my butt a couple times before that — and it just bit me.”

When the track’s “thick cushion” was brought up, O’Neal, 53, laughed.

“Thick cushion? It’s more than a thick cushion,” he said. “It just ramped me up in the fence.

“It didn’t really do too much damage, but then somebody came up there and clobbered me after I stopped there. That was more damage (to the left-rear corner) there than anything. I’m sure they had nowhere to go.”

Making just his second career attempt at the PDC since it became WoO-sanctioned in 2013 (he finished fourth last year), O’Neal will have to start deep in a B-main field on Saturday night after nearly pulling off a head-turning run from the fifth row.

“We had to start 10 the heat because we didn’t qualify good and got to fifth there and felt like we had a shot to make it in the top four,” said O’Neal, who won a Summernationals event at Fairbury in 2004. “But man, I tried just a little too hard there.

“If you could hit (the cushion) right you could really come off there — I did it a few times — but you’re just so much on the edge when you do it. And that one time, I just hit it just a little bit wrong, and by the time I went to get on the gas like I had done when I had a good head of speed it just shot me up into the fence. I knew as soon as I done it I had made a big mistake.”

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