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Brandon Sheppard celebrating for Yentes column

New Berlin’s Brandon Sheppard celebrates after winning the Prairie Dirt Classic in 2017 at Fairbury’s American Legion Speedway. 

Expect a stout field of dirt late model competitors to be a bit rusty and chomping at the bit to be back in competition when the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series arrives at Farmer City Raceway for this weekend's Illini 100.

"It's been a long time, 57 days between events," said series director Matt Curl of Fairbury. "The staff and drivers are all looking forward to racing again."

The 50-race national tour opened the season with four races at Florida's Volusia Speedway Park in mid-February.

After two ensuing weather-related postponements, including the original March 23-24 Illini 100 date, action is finally set to resume this weekend with New Berlin's Brandon Sheppard finding himself in familiar territory in more ways than one.

First off, Sheppard cut his racing teeth in weekly series events at Farmer City and will be totally comfortable in his surroundings, likely intimate with every rut in the race track.

Secondly, he enters this weekend's event as the series points leader coming out of Volusia, after winning nearly half of the events on the tour and grabbing the series points title in 2017.

Sheppard couldn't be reached for comment on his prospects for repeating as champion this season, but conventional wisdom and common sense leaves him as the overwhelming favorite.

Sheppard wheels the "house car" for Rocket Chassis, a West Virginia-based team that has dominated the World of Outlaws late model ranks in recent years.

He won a record-tying 18 series races, including the Illini 100 and Fairbury's Prairie Dirt Classic, en route to the 2017 title. That matched a single-season mark established the prior season by Josh Richards, Sheppard's predecessor in the Rocket house mount and the winningest driver in World of Outlaws late model history.

This season, Sheppard won the Feb. 17 finale of the four-race Florida swing to open the campaign.

Tim McCreadie, Dale McDowell and Scott Bloomquist won the other three, but won't be in Farmer City this weekend. All compete on the rival, but peacefully co-existing, Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series tour that competes this weekend in Ohio and Indiana.

Among the Outlaws regulars, Chris Madden emerged from Florida third in the points standings after finishing runner-up to Sheppard in the standings a year ago. Shane Clanton, a former Illini 100 winner, is currently in 10th.

A full contingent of local competitors is also expected to be on hand to challenge the touring drivers.

UMP modifieds, DIRTcar stock cars and crate late models will join the Outlaw cars on the Friday night card, which includes a 25-lap World of Outlaws Late Model feature.

Saturday's 75-lap Outlaws main event will share the card with the modifieds and DIRTcar stock cars.

Double dose: Central Illinois receives a full-throttle dose of World of Outlaws racing this weekend with the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, the big brother to the late models, slated to compete on Friday night at Jacksonville Speedway.

Donny Schatz is off to another quick start in the series in pursuit of his 10th World of Outlaws sprint car crown. He's getting some serious heat in the early going from young Sheldon Haudenschild, already a three-time winner on the tour this season.

Haudenschild is the son of sprint car great Jac Haudenschild and is no stranger to tracks in Central Illinois. He won at Lincoln Speedway two years ago in an event sanctioned by Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions series.

Around the Horn: Speaking of Lincoln Speedway, its 15th season of racing begins Sunday with Jimmy John's Night and five divisions competing.

Included is the Railsplitter 40 for the Midwest Street Stock Championship Series (MSSCS), which is embarking on its second season.

"It's shaping up to be a busy second year," said series co-founder Greg Osman. "We've added five new races and there's a lot more interest this year and a lot more people willing to try it now that we've had a 'learning' year."

New sponsors tossing some money into the pot have added to the interest in the series, which averaged 26 cars per event a year ago.

"Our lowest car count was 20 and our highest was 39," Osman said. 

The series will sanction 12 events this season. A first-ever visit to the half-mile Dirt Oval at Route 66 in Joliet is slated for June 16 before a June 23 race at Fairbury. Both events will serve as support races for the UMP Summer Nationals stops at the two tracks.

Macon Speedway opens its 73rd season on Saturday night with racing in six divisions. Peoria Speedway will host the Gary Cook Memorial modified special, also on Saturday.

Fast cars, movie stars: Dwight native Joe Howard and the Verizon IndyCar Series are "going Hollywood" this weekend with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach slated for Sunday (3 p.m., NBCSN). 

One of the premier street course races in the world, the weekend event annually attracts close to 200,000 fans with many of them of the "glitterati" ilk, there to "be seen" as much as to soak in the excitement and spectacle of an IndyCar series weekend.

Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue engineering grad, is the senior damper engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR). In addition to having the opportunity to hobnob with the likes of Brad Pitt on pit road, Howard also was able to join his teammates in victory lane at Long Beach when ECR and driver Mike Conway won the event in 2014.

They'll try again this weekend with Spencer Pigot and rookie Jordan King behind the wheel of the ECR entries.

It'll be the 35th IndyCar race at Long Beach. Mario Andretti won the first in 1984. James Hinchcliffe is the defending Long Beach winner. 

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph and can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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