CONCORD, NC – Three championship trophies rose to the sky in tandem, each hoisted by living history.
Brad Sweet, Brandon Sheppard and Matt Sheppard were crowned 2021 champions Saturday night at the Dirt Track at Charlotte during the conclusion of the NGK NTK World Finals, setting new milestones with the honor.
Sweet claimed his third consecutive World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car title. Brandon Sheppard is now a four-time World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model champion. And Matt Sheppard reached the peak of the Super DIRTcar Series mountain by holding the championship trophy for the eighth time in his career, becoming the winningest Super DIRTcar Series champion of all time.
The three drivers – each representing a major region of the country – battled long (dirt) roads of trials and tribulations to get to Charlotte but upon leaving, they find themselves in legendary status for their series.
Brad Sweet – Grass Valley, CA – 2019, 2020, 2021 Champion
Sweet now joins a couple of elite lists for the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series, which include, arguably, the top three drivers in the Series. With his third consecutive championship, “The Big Cat” becomes the third driver in Series history to accomplish that feat, joining 20-time Series champion Steve Kinser and 10-time Series champion Donny Schatz on that list. Also, he’s now just the fourth driver in the 43-year history of the Series to have three or more titles – a list that includes Kinser, Schatz and Sammy Swindell.
“In 2018 we won the Knoxville Nationals and we set out goals pretty high for 2019 and won that first championship,” Sweet said. “Once you’re on top of the mountain, you definitely don’t want to get off of it. It’s nice to get three in a row. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. And it all seems like it has happened so quick because you’re working so hard all the time, it’s hard to take a breath and realize you’re in the moment.
“I’ve been around this sport my whole life, so you have to pinch yourself when you start putting your name next to people you considered your hero and legends of the sport. It’s unreal. It happens so fast you don’t realize it is happening. You have to take a breath and realize it’s pretty cool we’re accomplishing it together.”
At the being of the season, Sweet picked up where he left off 2020 by winning at Volusia Speedway Park. Then, throughout the year, he and his Kasey Kahne Racing team became kings of consistency, finishing outside the top-10 only 13 times in 77 starts. During the summer months, Sweet put together a stretch of 17 top-10s in a row – 14 of them being top-fives. That helped him build a solid points wall between him and championship rival David Gravel to clinch the title before entering the NGK NTK World Finals.
“There are so many people that work night in and night out to get to this point,” Sweet said. “It’s easy to celebrate these moments but it is a lot of hard work to get here. Eric (Prutzman) is obviously the leader of our team; Andrew (Bowman) and Joe (Mooney) work their butts off all year long. We’re a good team. (Team owner) Kasey (Kahne) gives us good equipment.”
He ends the season with 16 wins – tying his career-high for the most wins in a season – 47 top-fives and 64 top-10s behind the wheel of his NAPA Auto Parts #49.
Brandon Sheppard – New Berlin, IL – 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021 Champion
In five years of being a full-time World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model driver, Brandon Sheppard rocketed his way up the stats sheet to becoming one of the best of all time. With his fourth title – behind the wheel of the Rocket1 Racing house car – he now ties Josh Richards for the most championships of all time. And, with this being his third consecutive title, he became the first driver in Series history to accomplish that feat.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Sheppard said, before taking a pause to almost comprehend the achievement. “That part of it hasn’t set in for me yet. At the end of the day, that was our goal going into the year to win another championship. We’ve definitely been up and down this year as far as speed goes. Definitely not as good as we wanted to be but it was a good year for us. Obviously, a good points year for us, winning the championship.
“To be able to tie Josh with four championships is huge for me because I look up to Josh as a driver. I always have. His dad (Mark Richards, owner of Rocket1 Racing) giving me this opportunity back in 2012 when Josh was doing other things, I never thought we’d be to this point. Not this soon. It’s definitely really cool.”
The season started out slow for Sheppard, not getting a top-five finish until the seventh race of the season and not getting a win until the 15th race of the year at Mississippi Thunder Speedway – the longest it’s taken him to achieve both in a season. Since getting that first win of the year, he’s finished outside the top-10 only once and has gone on a run of 30 top-10s in a row since July with only four of those finishes being outside the top-five.
“We still want to get better,” Sheppard added. “We want to win more races. We’re working really hard to get back to that for next year. We’ve been doing a lot of playing around and testing this year. We’ve learned a lot. To be able to learn what we have and run as good as we have and win the championship, it feels really good. It’s a confidence boost going into next year just because of the fact that we’re still making gains on this thing. If we can get to where we need to be over the off-season and go into Florida (for the 2022 season-opening Sunshine Nationals, Jan. 20-22) strong, you know, everyone knows you have to have a good Florida in order to win the points.
He’ll return to the seat of the blue Valvoline #1 Late Model in 2022, looking to surpass Richards in two categories and stake his claim as the king of the Series. One more championship will make him the winningest champion and two more victories will help him pass Richards for the most wins all-time – Richards currently has 78 wins and Sheppard has 77.
Sheppard ended the 2021 season with eight wins, 34 top-fives and 42 top-10s.
Matt Sheppard – Waterloo, NY – 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 Champion
Three years ago, Matt Sheppard accomplished a feat that many wouldn’t have fathomed. He tied dirt Modified Hall of Famer Brett Hearn for the most championships in Series history with seven. This year, he took it a step further and surpassed him – an accomplishment the Big Block Modified star couldn’t hide his glee for with the wide smile that accompanied every word.
“It’s definitely huge,” Sheppard said. “If you can beat anyone of Brett Hearn’s records, I feel like you’re doing something pretty good. He’s obviously the best that’s ever done this. To kind of break the tie with him and have the most Super DIRTcar Series championships… if you look at the history of the Super DIRTcar Series and look at all the names listed on it, to have the most is definitely very special to me.”
Sheppard had a slow start to the season, not getting a top-10 finish until the sixth race of the year when he earned his first 2021 win at Lebanon Valley Speedway. By August, “Super” Matt found his stride, not finishing outside the top-five for eight straight races – including a third at the prestigious NAPA Super DIRT Week.
“There’s just always different competition,” Sheppard said about the competitive nature of the Series. “We didn’t do the championship deal last year (due to the pandemic). But the year before I lost to Mat Williamson. So, I mean, it’s a struggle every year. We’ve just been fortunate to string together a bunch of years here where we’ve had really good seasons and years on tour. We’ve been able to string together a bunch of championships.
“I don’t really know what we found (this year). Just quit doing stupid stuff. I think at the beginning of the year we were just shooting ourselves in the foot. We’d take a car that we’d qualify decent with and say, ‘We’ll make a little tweak for the Feature,’ and then we’d ruin it. I don’t know what really happened. We just quit shooting ourselves in the foot and started stringing together some good finishes and wins and turned our season around.”
Already the winningest driver in Series history – with 76 victories – Sheppard now sits alone at the top of the championship mountain, arguably on the path his predecessor was honored with this year: becoming a future Hall of Famer.
He ended the 2021 season with four wins, 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s, eager to make it nine titles of the #9S Big Block Modified in 2022.
For tickets to World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series and World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series events, go to WorldofOutlaws.com/tix.
If you can’t make it to the races in 2022, you can watch all three series live on DIRTVision – either online or through the DIRTVision App.