Sheppard used all the lessons learned during his march to the championship on the grueling Summer Nationals series, which featured 26 races at 25 tracks in eight states over a 39-day period in June and July. He bagged a modest four wins (Spoon River Speedway and Belle-Clair Speedway in Illinois, and Clarksville Speedway and Clay Hill Motorsports Park in Tennessee), but consistent performance (19 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes) propelled him to the title by 75 points (1,675-1,600) over 16-year-old Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill.
Clinching the $25,000 Hell Tour crown brought a sense of Mission: Accomplished to Sheppard, who began traveling the circuit with his father before even reaching high school and has been a fixture in Summer Nationals fields for most of his seven years behind the wheel.
“My dad worked hard a lot of years trying to win it and he was never able to,” said Sheppard. “I guess me winning it kind of fulfilled both of our dreams. I was always there when he was doing it and he’s there helping me now, so it meant a lot to both of us.”
Despite the joy that accompanied the Hell Tour title, Sheppard and his crew barely paused to celebrate. Even with fatigue overtaking them upon completion of the Summer Nationals on July 20 at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio, there was no time for a break.
“Honestly, after the last night at Oakshade, we were like, ‘Well, I guess we gotta load up and go to Quincy (Ill.) on Sunday so we can start running for national (DIRTcar UMP weekly) points,’” said Sheppard. “Summer Nationals kind of put me in position to go for the national deal, so we decided to keep going and do as many nights as we could. It was never-ending this year.”
With Sheppard in the driver’s seat for the circuit’s national weekly-racing points crown after the Hell Tour, he threw his focus into chasing that honor for the first time. Twenty-eight of his 86 DIRTcar UMP-sanctioned starts came during the two-plus months of racing after the Summer Nationals ended; with a driver’s best 35 finishes/points nights used to determine the national champ, he had the volume of race appearances necessary to ensure his worst runs of the season were scratched from his ledger.
While Pierce made a late push to close the gap, Sheppard beat his teenage rival for the $20,000 national title by 47 points (2,549-2,502). On the strength of a season that saw him lead the DIRTcar UMP Late Model ranks with 14 feature wins (at nine tracks) and record 47 top-five and 66 top-10 finishes, B-Shepp found himself standing as a national champ before even reaching the legal drinking age.
“In the beginning, you never think you’d do something like win a national championship that young,” said Sheppard. “But we’ve been improving as a team and I’ve been improving as a driver every year. I can see myself getting better every year, driving harder and driving better. It all came together this year.”