DAVENPORT, Iowa — It took one of the closest finishes in World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series history to determine a winner Friday night at Davenport Speedway’s quarter-mile dirt oval.
A race that saw six official lead changes culminated with three passes on the final lap and a finish that dropped jaws worldwide on DIRTVision.
Brandon Sheppard crossed Ricky Thornton Jr. to take the top spot at the white flag. Thornton didn’t back down and railed the turn one cushion to get Sheppard back. They touched out of turn two.
The duo then criss-crossed down the backstretch, with Thornton rolling the bottom and Sheppard blasting the top into turn three. From there, Sheppard and Thornton throttled it out of turn four and ran door-to-door to the checkered flag.
Ultimately, the difference was only .007 seconds at the stripe, going in Sheppard’s favor.
“When I looked over and saw he was there, I knew it was gonna be really close,” Sheppard noted in victory lane. “That last lap was so crazy. I seen him go to the bottom coming to the white, so I shot into the top and noticed it had a little streak of rubber to get by him. Then he passed me back, but he bobbled, and we kind of touched.
“He went back to the bottom, so I knew I would have to catch top and it gave me just enough of a lunge to get by him.”
Although he fell just short of going back-to-back, Thornton continued to win over the hearts of dirt late model fans across the country.
Just one week after banking $20,000 at Jackson Motorplex’s Drydene Double Down Invitational, Thornton continued his stellar streak with the SSI Motorsports No. 20rt Longhorn Chassis.
Driving from ninth-to-first, RTJ led nine laps in the closing half and swapped the lead with Sheppard on three occasions in the final quarter-mile.
In the end, he may have been a few inches behind at the line, but nothing could stop the surging driver from smiling with his recent success.
“Man, Brandon and I had a really great race,” Thornton said. “I think we were side-by-side for five or six laps after that restart, it was unreal. I was able to get by him on the top, but when I got to lapped traffic I just screwed up. I thought I would be able to slide Boom [Briggs] there, but it just didn’t quite work out. I got back by him there on the last lap and just put all my faith in the bottom, then we got there for a photo finish.
“I honestly didn’t know if I won or he won, but we’ll definitely take a second though. That’s a great run for us.”
Sheppard and Thornton were the show in the end, but it was all Bobby Pierce at the beginning of the night. The Oakwood, Ill., native and three-time DIRTcar Late Model champion broke the track record in qualifying with a lap of 14.415 seconds.
Pierce then won his heat race after leading all 10 laps, and kept the perfect night alive by taking the pole position in the Morton Buildings redraw.
In pursuit of his first career World of Outlaws Late Model feature win, Pierce paced the opening 11 circuits of the 30-lapper before a daring three-wide affair on lap 12 changed the course of the race.
Catching Pierce with some assistance from lap traffic, Sheppard and Ryan Unzicker took him three wide down the backstretch, with Sheppard on the bottom, Unzicker in between, and Pierce up top.
Sheppard, the two-time and defending World of Outlaws Late Model champion, came out ahead by snatching the lead away on the bottom side and then driving off into lap traffic, leaving Pierce and Unzicker to fight for second.
However, a caution on lap 18 brought a new face into play.
Restarting on the outside of row two with 12 laps left, Thornton went screaming around the outside and shocked Sheppard when he rallied around him to take the lead on Lap 19.
From there, the duo ran side-by-side, door-to-door, and wheel-to-wheel for a near perfect six laps, unofficially swapping the lead countless times with the race on the line.
“He just did a really great job,” Sheppard said of Thornton. “I should’ve went to the top on that restart when I had the lead, but I really didn’t know where to go at that point. I stuck with what was working for me, but he carried so much speed and (would) just drive right around me.”
Once Thornton distanced himself on lap 26, it actually looked like he had back-to-back wins coming his way. However, the Rocket1 Racing/Valvoline No. 1 Rocket XR1 was stalking him in his footsteps and roared back to life at the white flag.
Going back to the top, Sheppard maneuvered by Thornton, only for the No. 20rt to go all out on the cushion and sneak back by. Then it all came down to turns three and four when Thornton went low and Sheppard went high.
From there, the razor-thin final margin told the rest of the story.
Behind Sheppard and Thornton at the end was a hard-charging Ricky Weiss. The Canadian earned his fourth-consecutive top-three finish by driving the Team Drydene No. 7 Team Zero Race Car from 11th to third.
Committed to the low line, Weiss slowly clawed his way forward before advancing into the top five at halfway.
He slightly cut into Sheppard and Thornton’s large lead, but ran out of time in the end.
Ryan Unzicker and Shannon Babb completed the top five. Justin Kay finished sixth, followed by Jason Feger, Bobby Pierce, Chris Simpson and Brian Birkhofer.
The ‘Inside Out’ doubleheader presented by Hoker Trucking flips to Davenport’s big half-mile for Saturday’s World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series event.
Morton Buildings Feature (30 laps): 1. 1-Brandon Sheppard [$6,000]; 2. 20rt-Ricky Thornton [$3,000]; 3. 7-Ricky Weiss [$2,000]; 4. 24-Ryan Unzicker [$1,750]; 5. 18b-Shannon Babb [$1,500]; 6. 15k-Justin Kay [$1,400]; 7. 25f-Jason Feger [$1,300]; 8. 32p-Bobby Pierce [$1,200]; 9. 32-Chris Simpson [$1,100]; 10. 15b-Brian Birkhofer [$1,000]; 11. 29v-Darrell Lanigan [$900]; 12. 18-Chase Junghans [$850]; 13. 97-Cade Dillard [$800]; 14. 0m-Chris Madden [$775]; 15. 28m-Jimmy Mars [$750]; 16. 28-Dennis Erb [$700]; 17. 12-Ashton Winger [$700]; 18. 21b-Rich Bell [$700]; 19. 0-Scott Bloomquist [$700]; 20. 66c-Matt Cosner [$110]; 21. 4-Bob Gardner [$700]; 22. 4g-Kody Evans [$110]; 23. 99b-Boom Briggs [$700]; 24. B1-Brent Larson [$110]; 25. 99jr-Frank Heckenast [$700]; 26. 58e-Dave Eckrich [$700]; 27. 40-Joel Callahan [$700].
Lap Leaders: Pierce 1-11; Sheppard 12-18; Thornton 19-21; Sheppard 22; Thornton 23-28; Sheppard 29-30.
Hard Charger Award: 15k-Justin Kay (+9)