Over the past several years, the annual Can-Am World Finals have grown to serve as a mega-ending for three prominent series. The World of Outlaws (WoO) NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars, the World of Outlaws (WoO) Morton Building Late Model Series, and Super DIRTcar Series (SDS) Big-Block Modifieds, all drop their curtain each year with a star-studded extravaganza at The Dirt Track at Charlotte (Concord, North Carolina).
The 13th running of the massive motorsports gathering was held on November 7-9. There was no shortage of storylines emerging during the three-day, free-for-all.
No matter what division you race, or where you race, one of the top-five stories of 2019 is (no doubt) the weather. There’s been an above-average number of events affected by rain this season. As a result, it was no big surprise that the 2019 World Finals had to endure its own Mother Nature-induced challenges.
A powerful cold front pushed through during Thursday night’s qualifying program. In fact, rain forced the second round of WoO Late Model qualifying to be canceled. With the qualifications nixed, heat-race lineups for Saturday’s WoO Late Model program were determined by each driver’s second lap during the first round of time trials held earlier in the evening. The first lap set Friday’s heat race lineups.
Additionally, the Super DIRTcar Series heat races for Friday’s program were ultimately pushed to Friday after its scheduled running on Thursday was also affected by the rain.
The effects of the cold front were felt dramatically on Friday and Saturday. High temps struggled to depart the 40s, while lows dipped into the upper 20s as a strong northerly wind whipped across the track.
While the battle for the WoO Late Model championship was determined long before the World Finals, the same could not be said for the other two tours on the card.
The SDS Big-Block Modifieds entered the final hoorah of 2019 with the closest battle in series history. Matt Sheppard embarked on the weekend with a scant six-point advantage over Mat Williamson. After Thursday night’s qualifying program, the duo sat deadlocked atop the standings.
In a drama-filled Friday program, Sheppard went to the tail of the 38-car field early in the feature after cutting down a tire. He charged back to a Tenth-place finish but lost ground to Williamson, who registered a Fifth-place run. This allowed the Quebec driver to extend his advantage to 18 points over Sheppard.
In Saturday night’s season finale, lousy luck bit Sheppard again when he dropped a cylinder on the pace lap. The seven-time series champion soldiered to a Fourth-place finish, while Williamson secured his first-series title with a runner-up performance.
“I had belief in these guys the whole time,” Williamson said after becoming the first Canadian driver to win a Super DIRTcar Series championship. “I just had to believe in myself and know that we could do it. The team is second to none. They deserve this, and they’ve worked harder than anyone. We had our growing pains, but we worked harder, and stuff got better.”
Meanwhile, the WoO Sprint Car contingent brought their own historic championship battle to the North Carolina party. Entering the weekend, California’s Brad Sweet led the standings by a mere-eight markers over 10-time, WoO champ Donny Schatz.
North Dakota’s Schatz turned up the pressure by finishing Second in Friday’s feature, while Sweet crossed the finish line in Fifth. Schatz’s performance cut Sweet’s lead to just two points. However, the Grass Valley, California racer would not be deterred on his path to the championship. He crossed the finish line, one spot better than Schatz on Saturday to clinch his maiden WoO title. It marked the second WoO title for Kasey Kahne Racing.
“Just so happy that we came out on top,” Sweet said. “You don’t know when the next opportunity to win a championship is going to be. You know, Donny [Schatz] is so good at running the points. We never really thought we’d have a chance to beat him. To come in here two points ahead, it’s kind of like winning the Knoxville Nationals on a green-white-checkered. Kind of the same feeling. You know he’s going to put pressure on you. Just so thankful we’re able to do it. We’re the best in the country now.”
Another Touch of History
While the WoO Late Models didn’t see a historic battle for the championship at the World Finals, the series did have its own drama. Positions two through five in the standings were separated by just 32 points entering the final two events. Plenty was on the line with a $30,000 payout difference from second to Fifth in the final point standings.
When the dust settled, Shane Clanton, Ricky Weiss, Chase Junghans, and Darrell Lanigan occupied the balance of the Top 5 in points, behind champion Brandon Sheppard.
Making history, Manitoba’s Ricky Weiss became the highest finishing rookie in series history with his Third-place performance. Additionally, he became the first Canadian to claim the WoO Late Model Rookie of the Year title. The pilot of the No. 7 fell short of reaching Victory Lane throughout the year, but he flirted with series wins on multiple occasions.
Weiss served notice that he’ll be a definitive force on the national scene in 2020 and beyond.
Break Out The Broom
Even though the lion’s share of the WoO Sprint Car focus was on the legendary championship battle, Connecticut’s David Gravel did his best to steal the spotlight. Pushing his 2019 WoO, win tally to 12, Gravel swept both $12,000 top prizes at the 4/10-mile oval.
“Last night, the car was ok, but tonight it was freaking badass,” Gravel commented in Victory Lane on Saturday night. “I had the best race car tonight, hands down. I felt like I could get through lap traffic really, really good, and my job was easy.”
The weekend sweep capped a stellar first year for Gravel in the Jason Johnson Racing No. 41. Back in August, he scored his first career Knoxville Nationals title. Additionally, the team released a statement following the World Finals, announcing they would again be on the road full-time with the WoO Sprints in 2020 and Gravel would again be their driver.
A Champion’s Proposal
Brandon Sheppard had a memorable 2020 campaign with the WoO Late Models. He tied the all-time single series win record with 18 triumphs, en route to capturing his second-career championship.
At the series banquet at the Great Wolf Lodge on Sunday night, he shared another memorable moment with family and friends. The Illinois racer proposed to longtime girlfriend Mikala Grandfield minutes before the banquet began, as he and his Rocket Racing team posed for pictures in front of their championship car. She graciously accepted his offer.
Sheppard has been ultra-impressive with his performances in the Rocket House Car over the past few years. In fact, he’s now won two titles in three years.
“What’s incredible about this whole thing is Brandon has driven this car for the past three seasons, and this team’s won close to $2 million in three seasons,” noted team owner, Mark Richards. “With Josh [Richards] in the 2016 season, we’re over 2.5 million dollars with this team in four years. It’s just incredible what Danny White’s done, and Austin [Hargrove], Joel [Rogers], everybody back at the shop who makes sure this thing keeps rolling.”
Wrapping Up The Winners
While Gravel swept the WoO Sprint Car portion of the weekend’s events, the other two series saw different winners.
In WoO Late Model action on Friday night, Chris Madden charged to the lead on a lap-31 restart en route to his third series win of the year. Meanwhile, Jimmy Owens picked up the $12,000 victory on Saturday night.
SDS Big-Block Modified action was a veteran affair in Victory Lane. Jimmy Phelps bagged his first touring win of the season on Friday evening. Saturday night’s finale found another New York racer in Victory Lane. Billy Decker picked up his first series win since the 2019 season opener at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park back in mid-February.