Billy Decker had competed in the first six Super DIRTcar Series events at Hagerstown Speedway, racking up the most top-five finishes of any driver without a win since 2001.
That all changed for the two-time Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar champion on Saturday night as he overtook ‘Super Matt’ Sheppard on a lap 65 restart and held off the hottest driver on the circuit to win the 7th Annual North-South Shootout 100 at the storied Maryland oval.
“I’m as surprised as anyone, very fortunate, feel like I got away with one tonight,” remarked the modest Modified chauffeur from Unadilla, N.Y. after escaping with a narrow three car-length victory over Sheppard, who had led almost from the outset after taking advantage of the first of three restarts to jump past outside pole-sitter Danny Johnson on lap eight. “Early on we just didn’t have anything for Matt.”
“Honestly, this is one that I’ve had on my calendar because the series race always seemed to get the best of us down here. Never been overly happy with our performance in this race so it feels really good to finally get one,” said Decker, whose previous best finish south of the Mason-Dixon Line was third in 2006, sandwiched between a pair of fourth places in 2004 and ’07 --- the Series’ last trip prior to Saturday.
Second-year tour follower Michael Storms from Wantage, N.J. scored a career-best third-place ahead of pole-sitter Danny Johnson towing in from Rochester, N.Y. and Watertown, N.Y. pilot Billy Dunn. Reigning Mr. DIRTcar points king Brett Hearn from Sussex, N.J., and Empire State stalwarts Pat Ward, Justin Haers, Larry Wight and Jimmy Phelps rounded out the top-10.
Finishing up the ’09 campaign with three straight Super DIRTcar Series victories, then capturing the Florida DIRTcar Nationals in February gave Sheppard plenty of momentum coming into Saturday’s showdown. The Waterloo, N.Y. standout remained on top of his game by besting 45 cars in time trials before copping the opening heat after starting third.
Already the winningest driver in Hagerstown history, Hearn was just as confident after slipping past Sheppard in a 25-lap Small-Block preliminary event to score his 26th feature race triumph before lining up third to begin the 100-lap Big-Block finale.
While drawing number one to lead the 31-car field to the line, Decker was quickly overtaken by Johnson at the drop of the initial green with Sheppard wrestling the third spot away from Hearn on the opening circuit. Following the first yellow flag for a slowing Dan Vauter machine, Sheppard blasted by Johnson to force the first lead change and Decker took over the runner-up slot with 10 laps in the books.
With a clear road ahead, Sheppard extended his advantage to 20 car-lengths after 15 laps, yet that margin quickly evaporated when Pennsylvanian Rick Laubach suffered a flat tire to incur a second slowdown just a handful of laps later. Sheppard continued to set the pace well ahead of Decker while Haers, Johnson and sixth-starting Storms settled in with a quarter of the race complete.
Second-generation star Sheppard finally reached the back of the pack on lap 37, methodically maneuvering around the smooth half-miler with no signs of letting up. At the halfway point Decker and Danny remained his closest pursuers as Storms and Haers stayed ahead of Hearn a straightaway behind.
A slowing mount of Bristolville, Ohio veteran Rex King on the back stretch required the third and final yellow flag, and this would ultimately prove to be the difference in Decker’s bid to unseat Sheppard. With a double-file restart on the docket, Sheppard stayed low and Decker pulled alongside, and when lap 65 clicked off on the scoreboard it was the LJL Racing no. 91 Gypsum Wholesalers/Bicknell forging ahead to establish a lead he would never relinquish.
Dunn was nearly as quick on the same restart, charging from seventh to fifth past both Hearn and Haers on lap 66, but unable to threaten Storms as the laps dwindled. With the trio of Decker, Sheppard and Johnson running nose-to-tail lap after lap, Storms was suddenly able to reel in the leaders and steal the show position from the Doctor with just four to go. A last lap flurry by Sheppard fell a half-second shy, giving Decker his 54th career triumph and a $6,000 payday in the 45-minute main.
“On that last restart, man, this car was just balanced for about 15 laps,” exclaimed Decker, who also scored season-opening Series wins in 1999 and 2000, although his Hoosier-VP Racing Fuels titles were earned in 1998 and 2008. “Then I got tight again, was probably holding up Matt at the end. It just happened to be a restart, hit it just right and got lucky. All in all the car was really good and we’re just tickled.”
“We started out last year 15th or 16th, which was kind of indicative of our whole season, hot and cold. Won a lot of good races but as the Series unfolded we just missed on too many nights. You just can’t afford to do that, it’s a tough deal and you can’t afford to roll over at all. Throw in a couple bad finishes against these other guys and it really hurts. It feels good to get off on the right foot this time but there’s such a long way still to go,” Decker acknowledged.
As pleased as Decker was with his opening-day performance, a subdued Sheppard was equally as disappointed with the final result in a day of domination by the talented 27 year-old.
“I just picked the wrong groove, thought the bottom was going to be the way to go on that last restart,” stated Sheppard, who captured seven Series shows last season to fall just four points behind record seven-time champion Hearn in the final standings. “I think the bottom a got a little dusty under caution, I spun the tires and Billy was able to out-drag me.”
“Other than that, our cars were about the same exact speed. When (Decker) was in front of me he was gonna win it and when I was in front of him I was gonna win it. I think we did everything right tonight, just picked the wrong lane near the end, so I can’t really be too upset. Jeff Brownell (owner) gives me a great car and the guys worked real hard. I don’t think they stopped all night with running the Big-Block and Small-Block. I kept them pretty busy so I’ve got to thank them. Still, to start off the year with a second, that’s a good run for us,” added Sheppard, whose finish Saturday was 28 spots better than last-place in the 2009 lid-lifter when he only completed the initial three laps at Big Diamond. Better yet, he heads back home to Central New York this time around clinging to an early two-point lead over Decker in the quest for his first Mr. DIRTcar crown.
Possibly the proudest of the front-runners was third-place finisher Storms, who recorded a pair of top-10 finishes in 20 Series stops a year ago. He ended up 14th in the Big Diamond opener before climbing to 10th on the final Mr. DIRTcar points chart behind the wheel of Vinny Salerno’s Four Star Racing no. 4 Keizer Aluminum Wheels/TEO entry.
“The car was absolutely awesome tonight, our whole team really needed this,” declared Storms, who last season suffered through a combination of engine failures and racing wrecks along with having Salerno’s ride stolen near season’s end to elevate his level of appreciation even higher in his sophomore year of touring. “TEO gave us a great car, hopefully it will stay consistent the whole year.”
“It was pretty nerve-racking, I haven’t run with these guys like that … ever. I just kept looking up at the lap board, thinking how many laps to go, how many laps to go. We knew we were good after setting fast time in our group ahead of Brett and Billy, that was nice right there. So to come out of here with a top-3 finish it really means a lot, definitely a great way to start the season. This place is just awesome, easily the best series finish I’ve had so this is really a good day,” smiled Storms, who finished 4th the first time ever in Salerno’s Small-Block mount during Eastern States Weekend at Orange County before closing out 2007 at Hagerstown filling in for Vinny’s former first-string driver Hearn, who was sidelined then with a back injury.
After a two-week layoff from tour competition, the ground-pounding Big-Block Modified Series heads back into the Empire State for the first of two events this season scheduled at Fulton Speedway. The ‘VP Racing Fuels Spring Fever 100’ on Saturday, April 10 takes center stage at owners John & Laura Wight’s Central New York facility as DIRTcar continues in its 35th successive season of racing around the Northeast.
Super DIRTcar Series Race #1
Hagerstown Speedway, March 27, 2010,
7th North-South Shootout 100' Big-Block Modified Event Summary
FIN STR CAR# DRIVER/HOMETOWN
1 1 91 Billy Decker/Unadilla,NY ($6,000)
2 4 9s Matt Sheppard/Waterloo,NY
3 6 4* Michael Storms/Wantage,NJ
4 2 7z Danny Johnson/Rochester,NY
5 13 49 Billy Dunn/Watertown,NY
6 3 20 Brett Hearn/Sussex,NJ
7 10 42p Pat Ward/Genoa,NY
8 5 3 Justin Haers/Phelps,NY
9 8 99L Larry Wight/Phoenix,NY
10 19 98h Jimmy Phelps/Baldwinsville,NY
11 23 99 Ryan Phelps/Fulton,NY
12 27 77x Dale Planck/Cortland,NY
13 9 7x Steve Paine/Waterloo,NY
14 12 32c Vic Coffey/Caledonia,NY
15 28 14j Alan Johnson/Middlesex,NY
16 17 62s Tom Sears Jr./Clay,NY
17 24 3t Gary Tomkins/Clifton Springs,NY
18 18 57 Donnie Corellis/Averill Park,NY
19 16 71 David VanHorn Jr./Phillipsburg,NJ
20 15 7 Rick Laubach/Quakertown,PA
21 31 16 Lance Willix II/Theresa,NY
22 26 8 Rich Scagliotta/Bound Brook,NJ
23 20 37md Jeremiah Shingledecker/Polk,PA
24 25 65 Rex King/Bristolville,OH
25 7 1f Stewart Friesen/Niagara-o-t-Lake,ONT
26 11 12a Ronnie Johnson/Duanesburg,NY
27 29 88c Billy Pauch Jr./Frenchtown,NJ
28 30 21k Randy Chrysler/Lewiston,NY
29 14 44 Frank Cozze/Wind Gap,PA
30 22 14 Jimmy Horton/Neshanic Station,NJ
31 21 85 Dan Vauter/Forest City,PA
GATER RACING NEWS LAP LEADERS: D.Johnson (1-7), Sheppard (8-64), Decker (65-100).
CAUTIONS: 3 for 13 laps.
HEAT WINNERS: Sheppard, Hearn, Wight, D.Johnson.
CONSI WINNERS: Vauter, Horton.
BICKNELL RACING PRODUCTS WINNER AWARD: Billy Decker.
MSD IGNITION WINNER AWARD: Billy Decker.
SYRACUSE 200 QUALIFIER: Billy Decker.
HALFWAY LEADER: Matt Sheppard.
BERT/KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER AWARD: Dale Planck.
XTREME LUBRICANTS SLICK MOVE OF THE RACE AWARD: Billy Decker.
PENSKE POWER POSITION AWARD (23rd): Jeremiah Shingledecker.
MSD IGNITION FINAL PLACEMENT AWARD: Dan Vauter.
FAST TIMER: Matt Sheppard (20.573sec/87.493mph).
TOTAL PURSE: $27,750.
CARS ENTERED: 46.
NEXT EVENT: Fulton Speedway "VP Racing Fuels Sprinfg Fever 100"- April 10, 2010.
DID NOT QUALIFY(15)
10v-Bobby Varin/Sharon Springs,NY
37x-Tommy Scheetz Jr./Boyertown,PA
84-Rick Wegner Jr./Monmouth Jct.,NJ
85L-Ted Lamb Jr./Clay,NY
165-Rex King Jr./Bristolville,OH