No other track the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series has visited so far this year has been able to display the true rocket-like speed of the “Rocket Shepp” Brandon Sheppard quite like Lancaster Motor Speedway did in its Series debut on Saturday night. Sheppard and his blazing speeds around this big half-mile in the Morton Buildings Feature propelled him to his eighth win of the season and 45th overall, granting him sole ownership of third-place on the all-time World of Outlaws Feature wins list.
But this win did not come without great pressure from a flock of Carolina favorites behind him. Finishers two-through-six were made up of entrants from either of the Carolinas, and they certainly gave Sheppard a run for his money early on.
Ben Watkins (Lancaster, SC) jumped to the early lead, just under two hours after qualifying seventh overall and winning his first career Drydene Heat race. Lap after lap, Watkins pounded the cushion and stayed clear of the pressure that trailed him. Until lap 21…
Coming to the start/finish line to complete the 21st circuit, it appeared as though Watkins’ tires had seen enough of the high side, as he shredded a right-rear tire and brought out the caution.
“We were married to the top side, and I felt like I had a pretty good car,” he said. “Our tire choice was pretty comparable to everybody else’s. Not sure if we just got into some debris or something.”
Just three laps earlier, the same heartbreak struck then-runner-up Brandon Overton, as he also blew a right-rear chasing down Watkins. While Overton was unable to return after his tire expiration, Watkins made repairs and came back for a 14th-place finish. Despite his unfortunate outcome, Watkins was all smiles after the race and was proud of the laps he led and the opportunity he got to race against the Outlaws in front of his very present home-track fan base.
“This is my hometown crowd, and they definitely back the hometown boys good here,” Watkins said in high spirits. “I love stepping up and racing with these national [tour] guys, showing how good we can do too.”
With the race’s original leader now out of the picture, the lead fell right into the hands of the Rocket1 Racing ride. Sheppard had worked his way around Chris Madden, Johnny Pursley and another South Carolinian, Michael Brown, for the second spot just before Watkins’ tire blew. His efforts in the first 20 laps proved to be all that was necessary to get the locals behind him. However, keeping them back there was another story.
It took a lot of mark-hitting to stay smooth, but Sheppard, as he’s done so many times before, drove a great race out front to get the job done once again on a track he was not too familiar with.
“It was a lot of fun out there,” Sheppard said. “Track’s really big, it’s a lot different than anything else we’ve ever raced on, for sure. It was definitely cool to do something a little bit different like that, and it’s a lot of fun when your car is that good.”
With a few cautions scattered throughout the race, Sheppard was able to keep it in clean air for most of the way. Strategically, he chose to stay away from the top groove, seeing how others had been using up their tires on the high side.
“My car was really good and maneuverable around the middle-bottom,” he said. “I went up and ran the top just for a couple laps and I felt like I was wheel-spinning real hard. If I did that too many laps in-a-row, I’d really overheat my right-rear tire.”
Clover, SC’s own Ross Bailes made one special effort to claim second on Saturday night, battling with Johnny Pursley for most of the race and then Michael Brown in the final laps to claim the runner-up spot.
“Johnny and Michael were racing really hard, it was honestly fun to watch,” Bailes said. “But I knew while they were racing hard that they were using up their tires. So I just stayed right around the bottom and tried to get through there.”
After a few cautions, Bailes’ car seemed to be getting faster, as he reeled in Michael Brown inside the final ten laps and, with five to go, made the pass down the backstretch to seal the deal. From that point, Bailes was a man on a mission to try and catch Sheppard, but the deficit was just too large.
“Once I got by Michael, I was able to run down Brandon a little bit. But I don’t think I would have gotten by him if the race went any longer,” Bailes said.
In the end, Bailes and the rest of the Barry Wright Race Cars house team bagged yet another podium finish in their first year of partnership. This certainly looks good on them right now, with plans to head to the Dirt Late Model Dream at Eldora Speedway next weekend, and Bailes would certainly love to have a good showing in what will be his debut at “The Big E.”
“This just shows how good their car is,” Bailes said. “We’ve been several places this year and won on hooked-up, slick, everything. I think we’ve got a really good piece and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.”
At the beginning of the week, “Downtown” Michael Brown said he wanted nothing more than to finish well against the Outlaws in front of his hometown crowd. And with his solid third-place finish on Satuday night, he certainly did just that.
“We’re tickled pink,” Brown said with a big smile on his face. “I’m thankful for my crew and the opportunity to drive for [car owner] Billy Hicks. This means a lot for us to have a good showing with the World of Outlaws. All the local guys were pretty stout tonight. That means a lot, not only to me, but to all the locals.”
Bailes said he didn’t think that if the race went any longer, he would have caught and passed Sheppard. With around ten laps remaining, Brown was supposed to be the man to try and do that, but a going-soft right-rear tire prevented his advances. When the #79 crew removed it from the hub to get tire samples after the race, it was completely flat.
“I noticed with about 10 or 11 laps to go that I started wheelie-ing a little bit getting into turns one and two and into three,” Brown said. “I knew something wasn’t right, and with about five laps to go, it started vibrating really bad. That’s when I knew I had a tire going down. I just thank the lord that we made it to the end and got a good finish.”
The Outlaws get next weekend off from Series competition, but most will make the trip into Rossburg, OH for the 25th running of the Dirt Late Model Dream at Eldora Speedway. Keep it locked to the World of Outlaws and DIRTcar Racing Twitter/Facebook channels on June 6-8 for all of the updates from the weekend’s events!
ABBREVIATED RESULTS (See full results)
Morton Buildings Feature (50 Laps) – 1. 1-Brandon Sheppard [$10,000]; 2. 87-Ross Bailes [$5,000]; 3. 79-Michael Brown [$3,000]; 4. 9-Johnny Pursley [$2,500]; 5. 57-Zack Mitchell [$2,000]; 6. 18d-Daulton Wilson [$1,700]; 7. 7-Ricky Weiss [$1,400]; 8. 28-Dennis Erb [$1,300]; 9. 18-Chase Junghans [$1,200]; 10. 25-Shane Clanton [$1,100]; 11. OO-Jeff Smith [$1,050]; 12. 99B-Boom Briggs [$1,000]; 13. B1-Brent Larson [$950]; 14. 16-Ben Watkins [$900]; 15. 75-Donald Bradsher [$850]; 16. 29-Darrell Lanigan [$800]; 17. 97-Cade Dillard [$770]; 18. 2F-Dennis Franklin [$750]; 19. 421-Anthony Sanders [$730]; 20. 2-Brandon Overton [$700]; 21. 44-Chris Madden [$700]; 22. 57y-Adam Yarbrough [$700]; 23. 91-Derrick Ramey [$700]; 24. 6-Chris Blackwell [$700]; Hard Charger: 18-Chase Junghans[+12]
-World of Outlaws Late Models Press Release
-Photo credit: Justin Wilson