As the World of Outlaws Late Models Series rolls into the state of Tennessee for two events this weekend, a look at the series standings reveals that Rocket Chassis house car driver Brandon Sheppard holds a significant lead of 78 points over second place Tyler Erb with Chris Madden and Rick Eckert being the only other competitors within 100 markers of the front runner. While there is still plenty of racing left in the 2017 season with just about one-fourth of the schedule completed, those who trail Sheppard would be well served to close the gap between themselves and the No. 1 machine before that deficit grows to unmanageable proportions.
At the beginning of the 2017 campaign, many looked to Madden as serious threat to win the WoO Late Models title. The driver who has proven to be a force in southeastern regional competition for years is making his first run at a national series championship. Currently third in the series rundown, Madden has largely lived up to expectations with one WoO win and five top-5 finishes. However, three results outside the top-10 have proven costly.
Going into last weekend, it looked as if Madden would be poised to charge toward the top of the standings. The series planned its first ever visit to Cherokee Speedway last Friday evening right next to the Gaffney, SC driver’s home and then to North Carolina’s Fayetteville Motor Speedway the next night. Those are two facilities at which Madden has enjoyed success.
Instead of reducing Sheppard’s advantage in the standings, the series leader actually increased his margin with a runner-up finish at Cherokee behind winner Shane Clanton and then a victory in Fayetteville. Madden’s results were not as good after a flat tire relegated the hometown hero to a 16th place finish at Cherokee. The driver known as ‘Smokey’ turned in a solid run in Fayetteville as he came home 4th, but behind Sheppard’s checkered flag effort.
Erb is entering his second year as a full-time racer on the WoO Late Models tour. The 20-year-old Texas native has emerged as a solid contender by posting seven top-10 finishes after ten starts. But if the young racer is to challenge for the overall glory by season’s end, he will have to end more nights with podium finishes and find victory lane on occasion.
Eckert is a former series champion who has found the winner’s circle once this year. The longtime WoO regular certainly has the experience to make waves throughout the season but he too needs to show the ability to win more often if he is to threaten Sheppard’s lead by season’s end.
Perhaps the most significant challenger for the championship from outside the current top-5 emerged last weekend in the person of Clanton. Himself a former title winner, the Georgia driver knows what it takes to persevere over the course of an entire campaign and walk away with the big trophy at the end of the year. His win at Cherokee gave him his second trip to victory lane in 2017 and made him the only driver other than Sheppard to have scored multiple WoO triumphs so far this season. But those two victories have proven to be his only top-5 results of the season to date.
Clanton has shown that he can win races but can he show the ability to turn the non-winning nights into top-5 finishes?
As stated earlier, there is still plenty of racing yet to be done in 2017 on the World of Outlaws Late Models tour. But it is not exactly a secret that the Rocket Chassis house car is a force on this series whether it is being driven by four-time champion Josh Richards or Brandon Sheppard. With the series making stops in Tennessee this weekend at Maryville’s Smoky Mountain Speedway on Saturday and Wheel’s Duck River Raceway Park on Sunday, it may be time for those trailing the current leader to gain ground rather than allowing him to separate even further from them.