Each year, a few drivers seem to come out of nowhere and break into the short track racing spotlight. We like to call those drivers “sleepers.” Although it’s sometimes difficult to predict who the next sleeper may be, we’ve come up with a list of 10 drivers who we believe could be breakout stars in 2018.
Buddy Shepherd – The West Coast is just waiting for its next breakout Super Late Model star. For years, it’s been Derek Thorn’s world. It may continue to be that way in 2018, but our staff believes that Buddy Shepherd could be a driver who challenges Thorn moving forward if given the opportunity.
Like many drivers around the country, the biggest challenge in front of Shepherd is getting the opportunity to showcase his talents. However, he’s proved that he can make the most of those opportunities if given the chance.
In 2017, driving for Wilson Motorsports, Shepherd scored top-five finishes in all three of his SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series starts. Among those top-five finishes was his first careers SRL victory at Madera Speedway (CA). Additionally, Shepherd won the Pro Late Model championship at Madera and went two-for-two in Late Model action at Kern County Raceway Park.
Chase Purdy – He’s young and he’s been given an opportunity that puts him in a good position to win races in 2018. Although any sort of plans to compete in ARCA or K&N has yet to be announced, Purdy will be piloting the Anthony Campi Racing No. 81 Super Late Model next season.
In his first race with Campi this past December, Purdy turned in an impressive top-10 finish in the 50th Annual Snowball Derby. After a strong showing their first time working together, this combination could prove to be strong heading into the new season.
Our staff believes that Purdy has the talent and equipment to run up front, and possibly even contend for some big-race wins in 2018.
Connor Okrzesik – Quiet and consistent, Connor Okrzesik has worked his way into one of the hottest young shoes in the Deep South. Over the last half of the 2017 Southern Super Series schedule, Connor O. reeled off six top-10 finishes in seven races, including a third-place run at Montgomery and a pair of fifths at Mobile and Cordele.
Okrzesik also seems to have a knack for stepping up on the big stage as he is two-for-two in qualifying for the Snowball Derby in his career. His rookie run in the Derby back in 2016 saw him come home 13th. The Deep South Late Model scene is chocked full of stars and wily veterans. However, perhaps it’s a teenager from southwest Alabama that is poised to have the biggest year when the calendar turns to 2018.
Dalton Zehr – While he may not be a sleeper on the regional level, we believe that Dalton Zehr could grab the attention of a national audience in 2018.
For four years now, drivers on the ARCA Midwest Tour have been playing second fiddle to Ty Majeski. With Majeski not expected to compete for a championship this season, that opens the door for a new star to arise. Zehr, the only other two-time winner in 2017, is the driver most likely to fill Majeski’s void and score more race wins next season.
Maybe a successful season in the Midwest would lead to Zehr traveling outside of his region for a few big races. If so, a new Midwest star could be born in 2018.
Gabe Brown – On a nationwide level, not many people have probably ever heard the name Gabe Brown. Heck, even on the regional level in the Northeast there are people who may not have heard the name yet. But that’s exactly what makes this 15-year-old driver a sleeper for the 2018 season.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Conway, New Hampshire native and former PASS North champion DJ Shaw, Brown has the tools for success.
When Brown strapped into a Super Late Model for the first time in July, he displayed maturity beyond his age (14 years old at the time) with a top-10 finish at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME). He followed that up with another top-10 finish in his second career start before finishing runner-up in just his third career stock car race.
Fast forward to the Oxford 250 weekend, less than a month after his first start, and Brown won over a jam-packed crowd by finishing second in the 100-lap Granite State Pro Stock Series feature.
Although his exact plans for 2018 aren’t known yet, we would put our money on Brown visiting victory lane.
Hailie Deegan – They call her the “Dirt Princess,” and rightfully so. The daughter of Motocross legend Brian Deegan is a Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series champion. But soon, we expect her to make her mark within the asphalt ranks.
Deegan made her asphalt Late Model debut in 2017, scoring a podium finish in the Jr. Late Model division at Madera Speedway (CA). She also made a pair of CARS Tour starts for Bond Suss Racing, finishing a respectable 11th and 14th.
Currently a member of the NASCAR NEXT program, we wouldn’t be shocked to see Deegan get even more opportunities in 2018. And if she does get those opportunities, we believe she has the talent and poise to take advantage of them.
Jack Dossey III – Although he’s the 2017 JEGS / CRA All-Stars Tour champion, Dossey could be considered a sleeper as he prepares to take a step up to the Super Late Model level. As a driver who has proven he can win races and championships, we believe he has the potential to surprise people at the Super Late Model level.
In 2017, Dossey finished no worse than 11th in any of the 12 points-counting JEGS Tour events. With an average finish of 5.0, he proved that he can be consistent while keeping his equipment in tip-top shape.
While running a limited amount of Super Late Model races, Dossey impressed with a top-five finish in his first career Redbud 400 start. It is that type of consistency and success that we believe could make Dossey a sleeper in 2018.
Mat Williamson – Although much of the attention in the Dirt Modified world was on Matt Sheppard at the end of 2017, Mat Williamson made some noise at two of season’s biggest events.
It all started at the kickoff to Super DIRT Week when Williamson charged by Sheppard and fellow heavyweight Stewart Friesen to win the 100-lap 358 Modified feature. He followed that up a few nights later by winning one of the Twin 25s for the 358 Modifieds at Oswego Speedway before finishing second to Sheppard in The Great Outdoors RV 150.
From there, Williamson headed south with his Big-Block Modified. He turned heads and did something that not many people could do in 2017 by beating Matt Sheppard for his second career Super DIRTcar Series victory.
If he can carry that momentum into the 2018 season, we expect to see Williamson competing for more race wins next season.
Tommy Catalano – Catalano is a young hotshoe in Western New York short track racing who claimed the 2017 Race of Champions Sportsman and Late Model championships, as well as the Holland Speedway (NY) NASCAR Pro Modified title and Spencer Speedway (NY) Sunoco Sportsman crown.
Catalano has been on the verge of his first RoC Asphalt Modified Series victory and has become a steady front-runner on the series. He has also held his own at the TQ Midget Indoor Auto Racing Series events against a stacked field.
Despite all of this, his most impressive feat may have come in the Dave London Memorial Street Stock event at Spencer Speedway after qualifying through the B-Main.
Not only does Catalano carry on a rich tradition of family winning, but he also does a lot of the work on all of the race cars they take to the track, wrenching on cars for his younger siblings. 2018 could very well be the year that the racing world finds out who this young superstar is.
Travis Braden – On most occasions, Travis Braden wouldn’t be considered a sleeper. However, as the former Winchester 400 winner enters his first full-time ARCA Racing Series season, he may be considered an underdog by many.
Although he is an underdog, Braden has proved that he has the talent to get it done at the ARCA level. In four career ARCA starts, the West Virginia driver has four top-five finishes including a win in his 2015 debut at Lucas Oil Raceway (IN).
With a team owner fully committed to him for the 2018 season, we expect to see Braden surprise many people with some strong runs and possibly even a few victories.
-Text by Speed51.com Staff
-Photo credit: Speed51.com