A year ago, for the first time in four decades, the Gopher 50 charity Late Models race was not held.

It took a once-in-a-century pandemic to put a halt to one of the biggest events of the summer at Deer Creek Speedway, but the Gopher 50 is back and bigger than ever this year.

Things have changed for the better for the 41st running of the Gopher 50, an event founded in the 1970s by the Blooming Prairie Lions Club.

For the first time, the Gopher will be a two-night, two-show event.

Also for the first time, the Lucas Oil Late Model Series will join the party; the Lucas Oil Series was scheduled to make its Gopher 50 debut at last year’s Gopher, but instead will do so this Friday and Saturday, with hot laps set to begin at 6:30 p.m. both nights.

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The only thing that could put a damper on this year’s event is the weather -- as of Wednesday afternoon, the forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain on Friday evening, the first night of the Gopher, and a 40 percent chance of rain on Saturday.

But after not having a Gopher 50 since then-26-year-old Brandon Sheppard rocketed past the field in 2019, Deer Creek and Lucas Oil officials will do whatever it takes to get the shows in this week.

The Late Models will be joined both nights by USRA Modifieds. The Late Models will race for a $12,000 winner’s check on Friday and a $15,000 winner’s check -- along with the title of Gopher 50 champion -- on Saturday. The USRA Modifieds will race for a $2,000 winner’s check Friday and a $5,000 winner’s purse on Saturday.

With the Lucas Oil Series replacing the World of Outlaws Series for the first time at the Gopher, defending champion Sheppard will not be on hand to defend his title. But plenty of familiar names will be at Deer Creek, including Lucas Oil Series points leader Tim McCreadie, the 2010 Gopher 50 champion; 2018 champion Mike Marlar; two-time Gopher champion Josh Richards (2011, 2016); and Shane Clanton, who won the Gopher 50 in 2012.

McCreadie, Marlar, Richards and Clanton are all in the top-10 in the Lucas Oil Series points standings entering this weekend. McCreadie has a narrow 30-point lead atop the standings over second-place driver Hudson O’Neal. The 20-year-old O’Neal was the 2017 Lucas Oil Series Rookie of the Year and is tied for the series lead this year in feature victories with Jonathan Davenport, both with three wins.

Davenport is another driver to watch this weekend; he is the two-time defending Lucas Oil Late Model Series champion and sits third in the 2021 series points standings.

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IN FRIDAY’S POST BULLETIN E-PAPER: All you need to know about the 2021 Gopher 50. (also available at PostBulletin.com/Sports/Motorsports on Thursday)

IN SATURDAY’S POST BULLETIN: Tim McCreadie, the 2010 Gopher 50 champion, is excited to come back to Deer Creek Speedway, this time as the points leader in the Lucas Oil Late Model Series. (also available at PostBulletin.com/Sports/Motorsports on Friday)