SPRING VALLEY — Brandon Sheppard has accomplished a lot in a short time.
The 26-year-old from New Berlin, Ill., nicknamed “Rocket Shepp” has rocketed to the top of the World of Outlaws Late Models Series over the past few years, setting records and winning championships.
Saturday, Sheppard accomplished another feat for the first time: He won a race at Deer Creek Speedway.
Sheppard used a late-race caution to hold off hard-charging Canadian driver Ricky Weiss and win the 40th annual Gopher State 50 charity Late Models race. Sheppard earned $10,00 for the victory, his 11th Outlaws feature win this season.
“Everything’s clicking right now, that’s what it takes to stay on a roll as long as we have been,” said Sheppard, who has 11 wins in 19 starts this season and pushed his year-to-date earnings past $150,000 with his Gopher 50 win. “It’s just a lot of fun right now.”
Sheppard won the Outlaws season championship in 2017, when he tied the series record for wins in a season with 18. But he was edged for the 2018 championship by Mike Marlar — who won the Gopher 50 last year, but did not race in this year's event — despite winning 13 races.
Those memories help Sheppard stay focused on doing his best in each race, he said.
“It’s a long year, a lot of things can happen,” he said. “As long as we can keep doing what we’re doing early in the night, qualifying good and running up front in the heat races, we should be fine.”
Sheppard started on the pole, but 2012 Gopher 50 champion Shane Clanton jumped out to a quick lead and Sheppard faded to third place as Menomonie, Wis., driver Jimmy Mars made a move to get past him and into second place.
Clanton led the first 33 laps and, though he wasn't pulling away from Mars or Sheppard, had a comfortable cushion in lapped traffic. But Sheppard made the decision to take the low side of the track on a restart with 16 laps to go, and it paid off. He passed Clanton on the next lap and led the rest of the way.
"This race track is just phenomenal," Sheppard said. "Every time I come here the racing is all over the place. The line changes so much throughout the race, it throws you for a curveball. "When I finally got the lead, I was just running the line I thought I needed to be in."
Sheppard made his own break by choosing the low side of the track on the lap-33 restart, but he caught another break with just four laps to go. Weiss had tracked him down and pulled even with on several occasions. As the leaders battled down the back stretch, Weiss passed Sheppard just as a caution occurred, bringing the race to a halt.
Sheppard led the field out of the restart and pulled away for the victory. Weiss held off Mars to finish second.
"I looked up with about eight laps to go and knew we had lots of time," said Weiss, a three-time Wissota national champion. "I was patiently working it back up there, then just when I went to pull the trigger to pass him, the caution came out.
"Hopefully we can get some luck on our side."