LAKE CITY, Mich. — Welcome back, Josh Richards.
In just his second World of Outlaws Late Model Series start following a four-month absence to pursue his NASCAR Nationwide Series aspirations, Richards flashed his vintage hard-charging form with a triumphant run to victory in Saturday night’s NAPA Auto Parts Merritt 50 at Merritt Raceway.
Richards, 24, of Shinnston, W.Va., started from the pole and led all but one circuit of a rough-and-tumble 50-lap A-Main. He repelled a late-race challenge from his Rocket Chassis house car teammate Brandon Sheppard, who finished second to give Richards’s father, Mark, a memorable sweep of the top-two spots in a dirt late model feature for the first time in his career as a car owner.
WoO LMS rookie Kent Robinson advanced from the 20th starting spot to place third and rising DIRTcar late model standout Mike Spatola finished fourth — career-best World of Outlaws outings for both drivers. Defending series champion Rick Eckert completed the top five.
Richards’s checkered flag was his second of 2012 and the 39th of his career on the WoO LMS, moving him back into a tie with Darrell Lanigan atop the national tour’s all-time win list. Lanigan, who has dominated the series this season to the tune of a record 13 victories, was never a factor in Saturday’s A-Main, finishing one lap down in eighth.
“It’s cool to come back here and have a weekend like we did,” said Richards, who finished second on Friday night at Winston Speedway in Montague, Mich., in what was his first WoO LMS appearance since March 31 at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway. “To lead laps and run second last night and then win tonight, it’s definitely a confidence booster to know we can come back and compete with the best.”
Considering the manner in which he manhandled his familiar blue No. 1 machine around the choppy and fast quarter-mile oval, Richards looked like he had never left as a WoO LMS regular. He survived seven caution flags and Sheppard’s strong bid to leave the Wolverine State with $11,150 in earnings, including a $1,000 bonus for winning the 10-lap Race of Champions dash that was contested at the start of the program by nine drivers who were past titlists of either the WoO LMS or dirt late model tracks in Michigan.
Sheppard, 19, actually nipped Richards at the start/finish line to lead lap 45, but Richards regained command moments later rounding turns one and two and controlled the remainder of the distance. A final caution flag, on lap 48 when Clint Smith relinquished fifth due to a broken shock mount, proved to be no problem for Richards, who pulled away on the restart to defeat Sheppard by 1.077 seconds.
“I know we started on the pole, but that was definitely the hardest I’ve worked to win a race,” said Richards, who decided to enter the WoO LMS’s doubleheader in Michigan because he did not have a ride for Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series stop at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. “The track was heavy and rough – and that condition is usually what I’m good in – but it was changing every lap so you didn’t know if you were gonna push or hit a hole.
“I’m sure it was exciting for the fans because it was crazy from the driver’s seat.”
Josh Richards, Brandon Sheppard, Kent Robinson, Mike Spatola, Rick Eckert, Jason Feger, Dennis Erb Jr., Darrell Lanigan, Eric Spangler, Clint Smith, Shane Clanton, Tim Fuller, Vic Coffey, Adam Thrush, Duane Treadwell, Bub McCool, Chub Frank, John Mason, Jeep VanWormer, Jeremy Tulick, Rich Neiser, Pat Doar, Tim McCreadie, Brady Smith, Terry Casey.