Concord, NC – It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again when the season comes to a head at the Textron Off Road World of Outlaws World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. Up to this point, the 2017 season has consisted of 41 races at 35 tracks in 18 different states, and it all boils down to the final three nights of the season Nov. 2-4, proving once again all dirt roads lead to Charlotte.
As predicted in January, Brandon Sheppard, Chris Madden and Shane Clanton were forces to be reckoned with every night. The three drivers combined to earn 28 victories, with Sheppard’s 17 wins topping the charts.
Sheppard has had his sights set on the single-season win record since February. His predecessor in the #1 Rocket Chassis car, Josh Richards, established the mark of 18 victories at Charlotte in 2016 by winning the first feature of the weekend en route to claiming the series crown. Sheppard, who is on the verge of clinching his first series championship, can also top Richards’ mark with a weekend sweep.
Earlier this week, Sheppard joined the first of two nights of open testing at The Dirt Track at Charlotte alongside four other Outlaws: Madden, Clanton, Rick Eckert and Frank Heckenast Jr. Testing allowed drivers to get a feel for the track surface made up of new clay and increased banking in the corners that varies from 13 to 16 degrees to open more lanes on the track.
“I definitely feel like I am up a little higher on the track than I am normally, especially on corner entry,” said Sheppard, of New Berlin, IL. “The shape feels a little bit different to me, too, but I guess that is the way the banking is and the way they’ve adjusted that. So far, so good. We’ll see what it’s like once it gets a little slower. It still has a little bit of grip in it right now, so once the track slows down a little bit we will have a better idea of how the track is going to race. But I like it so far.”
Madden sits second in points and second in wins with six. Although this is Madden’s first season running full-time with the series, the driver from Gray Court, SC, has entered into 18 World Finals features since the inception of the event in 2007. Last year during World Finals, Madden finished second in the first feature and won the final night.
“It still kind of drives the same way that it did before,” Madden said. “It definitely is going to be a lot wider than what we’ve had here in the past, so I think it possibly has changed for the good. If I was racing tonight I would feel really confident, but obviously I feel pretty confident here. I’ve won five or six races here, and I had a chance at winning both of them last year. I love this place. This fits my driving style, and I feel better coming in here than I have in the past. I feel a little bit of a relief as far as speed in my car, and I’m really looking forward to the weekend.”
Madden recently switched from his distinguishable black, green and purple paint scheme to a black and red car. With this switch, he also transitioned into the Longhorn Chassis House Car to complete the final three races of the season, including his recent win at the Dirt Oval at Route 66, the Outlaws’ last race before World Finals.
While Sheppard’s lead over Madden and the rest of the Outlaw regulars is a comfortable 294 points, the closest points battle across the board is actually for eighth place, between Chub Frank (8), Morgan Bagley (9), and Frank Heckenast Jr. (10), all separated by a mere 12 points.
Earlier in the season, after Heckenast and Bagley finished third and fourth respectively at Wisconsin’s Oshkosh SpeedZone Raceway, Kevin Kovac from DirtonDirt.com asked Heckenast Jr. about the points showdown between him and Bagley, who at the time were separated by 38 points.
Heckenast said, “Me and [Bagley] have a nice little points battle going for ninth and 10th. It’s not much to most people, but me and him mess around about it every night. I think it’s making us both better.”
Headed into the Textron Off Road World Finals only two points separate Heckenast and Bagley, the difference of one position during a race. And only 12 points separate Frank and Heckenast; that’s a difference of six positions during a race. With two final races for the 2017 season, the points battle between eighth and 10th is sure to scramble.
Of the three drivers, Heckenast was the only one to take advantage of testing at Charlotte, and the only driver across the board to test during both nights.
“I can tell a difference when I get up on the race track. Around the bottom, it’s the exact same, but through the middle and the top you can definitely tell it’s a lot better,” said Heckenast, of Frankfort, IL. “We’re a little off right now, but we’ll get there. I think we can pull off a couple solid top-10 runs [during World Finals].”
Another heated battle in the points championship is for fifth place, between Rick Eckert and Tyler Erb, who sit only 22 points apart. Erb was as high as second in the standings, but heated competition throughout the summer and into the fall has him entering the World Finals in the sixth position. Erb didn’t make the trip to Charlotte for testing, but he said his plan is to just “wing it.” He will only need to finish 12 positions ahead of Eckert between the two final races of the season to break into the top-five in the championship standings.
The Textron Off Road World Finals at the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway will host the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series and the Super DIRTcar Series Big-Block Modifieds for three nights of thrilling side-by-side, dirt-slinging, heart-pounding action. At the conclusion of the event, three series champions will be crowned for the 2017 season. For more information on the Textron Off Road World Finals visit www.worldofoutlawsworldfinals.com.
-World of Outlaws Press Release. Photo credit: Speed51.com