Just one year ago Matt Sheppard arrived at Merrittville Speedway on the brink of making his mark in the Super DIRTcar Series for Big-Block Modifieds.
On Monday night ‘Super Matt’ continued his mastery of Merrittville’s racy one-third miler and is now on the verge of establishing himself as THE man to be beat in the bid for his first-ever overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Championship.
Sheppard’s charge from 12th starting position to score his tour-best fifth ---and second straight at the storied Thorold, Ont. oval--- triumph in the nation’s premier Big-Block Modified series was worth $6,000 and more importantly extended his lead to 76 points over sixth-place finisher Jimmy Phelps in the title run after 14 rounds.
“It was really special to win the last Trevor Wilkens Memorial here and its even more special to win the first Bob St. Amand race,” remarked Sheppard, 28, in familiar low-key fashion after staving off a late-race run by top Canadian finisher Stewart Friesen to head back to the states with a Northeast-high total of 13 Big-Block feature wins. “Just have to thank the St. Amand family along with the Bicknells and Williamsons that own this great speedway and offer such a great event.”
“It was a little bit of a scare there but I ended up missing all of them. You hate to see that happen right in front of you when you’re leading but we were able to avoid it and hold on for the win,” commented Sheppard, who survived a tangle in the closing stages that forced him to contend with Friesen over the final 10 circuits. The margin between Waterloo, New Yorker Sheppard and Friesen from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. under the final checkered flag was a scant .214-second, while Dale Planck from Cortland, N.Y. crossed the line a close third ahead of perennial rivals Danny Johnson from Rochester, N.Y. and reigning Mr. DIRTcar points king Brett Hearn hauling in from Sussex, N.J.
Touring driver Ryan Phelps made contact with Merrittville weekly contender Scott Wood directly in front of Sheppard as the field navigated through turn four. The near-miss collision forced out the fifth and final yellow flag on lap 91 to set up the final international confrontation. And for the remaining 10 laps Sheppard clung to the low side while Friesen inched forward using the middle lane and frontstretch moat only to fall a half car-length short in the bid for his first career Super DIRTcar Series victory.
“I knew Stew would be coming because when I got to lapped traffic I was struggling. I wasn’t much faster than they were so I knew he’d be right there at the end,” Sheppard figured.
Sheppard was fifth quickest in Bilsten Shocks Time Trials and finished second in his qualifying heat, yet when it came time to draw among the top heat race finishers he grabbed the highest number --- 12. While fast timer Jimmy Phelps filed right alongside in 11th among the 30-car starting car field, it was his cousin Ryan Phelps that selected the pole to begin the century grind inside row one.
Veteran open-wheel campaigner Steve Paine sprinted ahead at the drop of the opening green flag while Ryan Phelps faded from the front seemingly just as fast. Tour regulars Lance Willix II (lap 5) and Michael Storms (lap 26) slowed to bring out a pair of early cautions, and with a quarter of the race over Paine and Friesen led Billy Decker, Hearn and Planck.
On lap 30 ---corresponding car number of the late Bob St. Amand--- Paine and Pete Bicknell hit the jackpot with the St. Amand family posting $250 bonus awards to the highest running Big-Block and Small-Block drivers. Paine’s effort to earn the $6,000 grand prize came to end a dozen laps later as Friesen bolted past low exiting turn four to complete lap 42.
Friesen and Paine continued to pace the field at the halfway mark, with Hearn, Planck and Decker filling out the top-five as Jimmy Phelps and 21st starter Danny Johnson made their moves to the front. While Friesen opened up a comfortable advantage on the tacky track steering the red Pizza Logs no. 1 Jeff Daley & Sons Oil Service-Westmoreland Golf Club/TEO machine, a great four-wide battle brewed between Planck, Paine, Johnson and Sheppard materialized until the ‘Doctor’ drifted high over the turn four cushion to all but end any chance of claiming victory.
When James Michael Friesen looped his mount in the fourth corner to incur a fourth caution period on lap 65, Sheppard had grabbed third and had his sights set on the front-running duo of Friesen and Planck. Soonafter Sheppard put his JB Motorsports no.9s Xtreme Lubricants/Bicknell special into second on lap 70 and the next time around nosed ahead of Friesen low across the line to forge what would be the third and final lead change of the night.
Despite the late-race mishap involving Phelps and Wood, Sheppard never flinched as he held back Friesen to score his 17th career Super DIRTcar Series win, which ties him with Gary Tomkins for 11th on the all-time list.
“I was a little worried there in the beginning, we didn’t take off very well at all,” Sheppard admittted. I was really just riding around, wasn’t going anywhere and guys were driving right by me. Then all of a sudden it seemed like about halfway that bottom (lane) really took off. I was just going to commit to it and putter around the bottom and hope I could hold on.”
The strategy worked, barely, though as Friesen was waiting to pounce if there was the slightest of mistakes made along the way.
“Think we needed about 2-3 (laps) more, Matt was living and dying on the bottom,” said Friesen, who collected his first Series checkered flag in the opening 25-lap segment of the ‘All-Star 100’ at Cayuga County Fair Speedway in mid-July. “And he lived and got by us when we were rolling through the middle.”
“We just had a great race car and it was a great race. He was dying on the bottom the last couple laps but it was only 100 laps, so it is what it is. I’m just happy, we’ve got an awesome race car.”
“We just put this car together, it’s brand new and the results showed. We got a couple weeks to work on it and its gonna get faster. Everybody that’s helped out, its been huge and we just keep moving forward,” added Friesen, after advancing to 12th in the SDS point standings despite missing three events.
Planck has competed in every show, remaining sixth on the points chart following his second straight third-place finish of the season on Canadian soil.
“Can’t thank Bicknell enough, this is a pretty fresh (BRP) car with a fresh Kevlar engine,” said Planck, 40, who placed third on July 20 at Autodrome Drummond in Quebec. “Just been going back and forth with shocks trying to get a little bit closer to these guys running up front.”
“We’re super happy, this is like a win for us the way I’ve been running on tour. The car worked awesome. Merrittville Speedway is awesome to race on, too. Always seems like you can go three-wide, way out on the cushion or down low near the barrier. So its always fun to race and the fans are great.”
“Tonight Matt was on the bottom and Stewy was up a little bit and coming across kinda in the middle. So I figured it was only my duty to go way up top, and actually the car worked good up there,” added Planck, who scored his lone series win of the season at Fulton Speedway back in April buckled in behind the wheel of the black RezX Racing no. 77x Twin Leaf Express(Ft. Covington)/Bicknell entry.
The final mid-week Super DIRTcar Series show lies three weeks ahead as the prestigious ‘Mr. DIRT Track U.S.A.’ title event takes place on the high banks of Lebanon Valley Speedway with a whopping $17,500 saved for the 100-lap winner on Thursday, Aug. 26.
Super DIRTcar Series Race #14
Merrittville Speedway, August 2, 2010 ‘Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial 100’
presented by L. St. Amand Enterprises
Big-Block Modified Event Summary
FIN STR CAR# DRIVER
1 12 9s Matt Sheppard/Waterloo,NY ($6,000)
2 3 1f Stewart Friesen/Niagara-o-t-Lake,ONT
3 6 77x Dale Planck/Cortland,NY
4 21 27j Danny Johnson/Rochester,NY
5 5 20 Brett Hearn/Sussex,NJ
6 11 98h Jimmy Phelps/Baldwinsville,NY
7 15 42p Pat Ward/Genoa,NY
8 19 71 Mike Bowman/St.Catharines,ONT
9 10 42 Pete Bicknell/St.Catharines,ONT
10 7 91 Billy Decker/Unadilla,NY
11 9 99L Larry Wight/Phoenix,NY
12 13 37s Boyd MacTavish/Ransomville,NY
13 26 17c Chris Steele/Fenwick,ON
14 8 8 Rich Scagliotta/Bound Brook,NJ
15 4 62s Tom Sears Jr./Clay,NY
16 28 96 Fred Carleton/Niagara-o-t-Lake,ONT
17 29 15j Tim Jones/Sanborn,NY
18 1 99 Ryan Phelps/Fulton,NY
19 30 52 James Friesen/St.Catharines,ONT
20 20 76x Gary Tomkins/Clifton Springs,NY
21 24 38 Scott Wood/Thorold,ONT
22 22 6m Mat Williamson/St.Catharines,ONT
23 25 07 Tim Kerr/Picton,ONT
24 2 7x Steve Paine/Waterloo,NY
25 16 16w Lance Willix II/Theresa,NY
26 23 26 Rick Richner/Niagara Falls,NY
27 17 76 Travis Braun/Jordan Station,ONT
28 14 108 Bill Bleich/Port Robinson,ONT
29 27 17 Billy Dunn/Watertown,NY
30 18 4* Michael Storms/Wantage,NJ