The 2010 Super DIRTcar Series scheduled 22 point races spread over nine months. And that’s exactly the number of events that were needed to crown Matt Sheppard as the overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Champion for the first time in his Big-Block career.
With The Dirt Track at Charlotte providing the backdrop for the 4th Annual Lowes Foods World Finals Presented By Bimbo Bakeries and Tom’s Snacks, the mighty Big-Block Modifieds took center stage with ‘Super Matt’ showcasing his talents in front of a national viewing audience on SPEED TV.
Buckled in behind the wheel of the JB Motorsports no. 9s Xtreme Lubricants-Integra Shocks-Bert Transmission/Bicknell machine, Sheppard closed out the final weekend of racing on the DIRTcar Northeast circuit posting 14th- and 2nd-place finishes to capture the coveted Mr. DIRTcar title worth $50,000. Jimmy Phelps closed to within 22 points after winning the 30-lap opener Saturday afternoon, yet faded to 10th in the 40-lap nightcap won by Tim McCreadie with a pass of Sheppard in the closing stages.
“It was a long day and a tough day in the first feature,” remarked a relieved Sheppard, 28, after posting his series-high 15th Top-5 finish of the season to clinch the elusive championship, one he had led since overtaking Billy Decker in mid-July during the ‘Great Canadian Tour’ of Quebec. “After that second one it was such a relief to get it done with.”
“Just feels good to bring home that championship. We’ve been working since February to get to this point so to be here now really feels great,” said Sheppard (3,122), after outscoring Phelps (3,063) by 59 points in the final Mr. DIRTcar standings. Brett Hearn (2,924) placed third ahead of Billy Decker (2,862) with Danny Johnson (2,794), Dale Planck (2,634), Billy Dunn (2,505), Ryan Phelps (2,432), Tom Sears Jr. (2,317) and Larry Wight (2,303) completing the Top-10 on the final points chart. 2010 DIRTcar Big-Block Modified Motorsports Safety Systems Rookie of the Year Lance Willix II finished 16th in the cumulative standings with 1,822 markers.
Each Modified main event paid out $6,000 to the winners, yet more importantly offered enough points for near season-long leader Sheppard to outlast Phelps as the curtain dropped on DIRTcar Racing Northeast’s 35th consecutive year of open-wheel competition.
With sun and wind beating down on the ultra-smooth 4/10-miler during the opening feature that was postponed from Friday due to rain, abrasive track conditions led to no less than 26 flat tires that resulted in 14 caution periods slowing the 30-lapper. Sheppard was the last to force out a yellow flag, holding down second with just three laps to before flattening out a right rear shoe.
“In the first race I wasn’t as much surprised with getting the flat as I was with it happening so close to the end,” Sheppard noted. “Everybody was getting flats so I guess it wasn’t unexpected. I took it easy and still got one. I was really amazed how fast the car was running it so easy and still staying up front. After what happened the first time I just didn’t want to get another flat the second time out.”
Phelps was well aware of the tire situation in the opening feature and while his closest competitors waited until their soft Hoosiers lost air before turning pitside, Phelps ducked into the pits with the yellow flag out and 18 laps flashing on the scoreboard.
“At first we thought there was a chance the track could’ve gone that way (abrasive), then we went out and watched the C and B mains and it just didn’t appear that it was going there,” figured Phelps, 35, who like Sheppard was in search of his first-ever Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block title entering the 2010 finale and now has placed among the front-four in points that last four years. “We ended up putting on the wrong tires but knew it early enough to get off the track and make the change.”
“I saw a lot of smoke off the cars in front of me, knew what we had on for rubber and also knew we wouldn’t make it. And the car wasn’t very good with the tire combination anyway. So we just gambled coming into the pits and it paid off, the car was really good after that,” said Phelps, after parkingthe HBR Motorsports no. 98h Wave Energy Drink-Mohawk Northeast/Troyer entry in victory lane surrounded by more than 14,000 fans that filled the sold-out stands.
Sheppard’s Xtreme Lubricants teammate Jeff Brownell Jr. shot out to the early lead in the opener followed by former Charlotte winner Brett Hearn, Bobby Varin, Sheppard and McCreadie. Just five laps in the first yellow flag fell for Hearn, not for a flat tire but just for the all-time Super DIRTcar Series race winner slipping high exiting turn one.
“That early miscue was actually a blessing,” said Hearn, 52, after charging to the front for a second time and crossing the line fourth behind Phelps, Danny Johnson and Gary Tomkins. “It forced me to race hard from the rear and I got my flat tire earlier than a lot of the other guys. The track was just not what any of the teams was expecting, a lot of sun with a lot of rubber laid down made for a tough surface.”
Charging from seventh starting position steering the Smith Bros. Concrete Foundations no. 74 Hudson Valley Concrete Pumping/TEO, Tim Fuller grabbed the top spot from Brownell on a lap 10 restart and maintained a comfortable advantage most of the way. Despite almost all the opposition in the 28-car starting field suffering at least one flat tire during the feature, Fuller looked like an exception as he held the point with just two laps to go. Yet rounding turn three the Edwards, N.Y. pilot had a right rear tread go down and before runner-up Danny Johnson could gain control, Phelps nosed ahead up high to forge the third and final lead change as Fuller coasted out of harms way.
“Definitely didn’t prepare for that type of track condition early on,” divulged Phelps, after scoring his fourth series win of the season with a dramatic two-car pass for the lead as he took chief starter Dave Farney’s white flag that signalled one lap to go. “Fortunately, we were one of the first in line to make a change and put fresh rubber on. After that, just tried to get through the pack as fast as I could, knew some of the guys up front were starting to struggle and I could see their tires going bald and I wanted to take advantage of it.”
“I also knew Danny had enough rubber to make it to the end as I could see his tires, felt we were probably as good as he was in regards to how our cars were working. I thought with about five to go there was a good chance it was going to be him and me racing for the lead. Then it looked like Fuller was going to make it but things got all crazy on the last lap,” Phelps said.
When the final checkered flag flew it was Phelps by .0147 sec. over Johnson, followed by last-place starter and Bert Hard Charger Gary Tomkins, Hearn, who had a flat of his own on lap 24, and Pennsylvania native Kyle Strickler, now living in nearby Mooresville, N.C., who qualified through the B-Main.
“I can’t believe I finished second, the car was so loose out there today,” noted Johnson, who rejoined the field after a right rear went flat on lap 22 to relegate him to the pits for a quick tire change. “But I guess the way guys were dropping out with flats we kind of fell into it. This is definitely a fun place to race, it was good today especially having more than one groove to get around if you were hooked up.”
Added Tomkins, who rallied from dead-last to find the show position driving Ray Tuit’s proven Mike Sparta Trucking no. 673 Pro Stock Automotive-Behrent's Performance Warehouse/Bicknell entry. “It was a long way up through the pack, I just tried to save the car as best I could and keep it as straight as possible getting around. Starting so far back we made a lot of changes having nothing to lose. Knew the track would rubber up so we planned the best we could and ended up with a good finish,” said Tomkins, who joined Strickler and 8th-place finisher Billy Dunn as the only drivers not to experience a flat tire during the course of the show.
Track conditions were literally like night and day for the 40-lap finale that began under the lights with the sun setting well beyond the horizon. With the five heat race winners once again redrawing to establish the Top-5 starting positions, pole-sitter Bobby Varin and Sheppard filled the top slots riding ahead of Billy Decker, Dale Planck and McCreadie.
“I could tell the track was starting to get into the tires a little in the second race,” said Sheppard, who jumped ahead of front row partner Varin at the out set before relinquishing the point to McCreadie with just laps to go. “All I really wanted to do was finish so I think (McCreadie) knew my situation, knew I wouldn’t race him hard when the time came.”
“Once I built a big lead I just backed it down and tried to keep the car as straight as I could. Timmy made a heck of a move and got by me on the outside that last restart and I was gonna just let him go and focus on finishing. My car was good but staying around for the checkers was more important than any win,” Sheppard recognized.
Also starting fifth in the first feature race, McCreadie retired for good in the opener after a second flat tire sent the Four Star Motorsports no. 4* Keizer Aluminum Wheels-Kruger-Kosakowski Plumbing & Heating/TEO machine pitside for good with five laps to go. The second-generation driver hovered among the Top-5 three-quarters of the second race before taking advantage of the smoking car of runner-up Billy Decker and the ensuing lap 31 restart to grab his first lead of the night.
“The car was so bad in the beginning but then the tires caught on and just locked to the track,” described McCreadie, 36, after scoring his 19th Super DIRTcar Series triumph --- his last coming at Autodrome Drummond in 2004. “Not sure if we had the best car out there tonight, but I’m confident we definitely had the best tires.”
In the first race you could’ve slapped on an Extra-Hard Right Rear tire, yet according to McCreadie no teams ever thought they would need that compound. A regular Hoosier hard compound was utilized on the right-rear in the final 40-lapper and nearly every car made it to the finish with plenty of tread to spare.
Following McCreadie and Sheppard across the stripe was Danny Johnson, the only driver to claim both front-five finishes, while Fuller and Brownell held on in the Top-5.
“I really like this track, its nothing like anything we race on the circuit up north,” said Johnson, 50, a four-time Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block champion, yet his first title in the new millennium remains on hold for another season. “It’s a fun place to run being smooth, and it was really good today getting so wide with more than one grove. If you’re good there’s plenty of room to make it to the front. At the same time, if you’re junk don’t expect to stay around the front too long.”
With the Lowes Foods World Finals now officially in the record book, all eyes turn to the 35th annual DIRTcar Racing NorthEast ‘Night of Champions’ on Saturday, November 20 at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, New York where nearly $300,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded to the top teams in competition. The banquet will honor the 2010 champions in the Super DIRTcar Series Modified (Sheppard), 358-Modified (Danny Johnson), Sportsman Modified (Tim Sears Jr.) and Pro Stock (Louie Jackson).
Saturday morning opened early for track packers with the first laps turned at 8:30 a.m. on the ultra-moist North Carolina red clay oval. Pit gates swung open at 9:30 a.m. and the grandstand doors opened at 10 o’clock with the first cars hitting the track at 10:30 a.m. for hot laps. With series and track officials faced with presenting almost two complete shows ---with the regularly scheduled program geared up to headline the SPEED TV broadcast from 8 p.m.-12 midnight--- the features carried over from Friday were reduced by 10 laps for Big-Blocks and World of Outlaws Series Late Models, with the initial WoO Sprint Car Series A-Main shortened by five.
Hoag In Hottest Seat: “If there’s one short track in the country to work for, this is it,” declared Alex Hoag, 26, a transplant from New York State’s Southern Tier currently recognized as The Dirt Track at Charlotte Operations Manager. He served in a similar capacity from 2005-07 closer to his roots at Black Rock (NY) Speedway, owned by his father Dean, prior to his departure to the heart of NASCAR country in 2008. When the Super DIRTcar Series made its maiden voyage to the multi-million dollar facility in 2001, the former third-generation racer and grandson of Northeast Modified Hall of Famer Dutch Hoag from Bath. N.Y. was the first driver out for time trials. He failed to crack the Big-Block starting grid in both the 2001 and ’03 specials run down south, yet 2000 DIRTcar 358-Modified Rookie of the Year finished 8th (started 28th) in the 2003 Mr. DIRTcar 358-Mod Champ Trail event staged in Charlotte. “My wife (Nicole) got a teaching job and Tom (Deery, World Racing Group President) helped get me an intern position with Seamus (Curley, former director of events at Charlotte Motor Speedway). When I first came down south, I actually thought I might find work with a race team. Now I get to deal with a lot of teams in a lot of divisions when they come to town at all our tracks,” added Hoag, who also performs duties at the neighboring paved superspeedway and zMAX Dragway, which sandwich the dirt track. While Alex was busy helping coordinating efforts Saturday at Charlotte, his father was back up north orchestrating a $10,000-to-win Enduro as part of Black Rock’s 2010 season finale.
Just 102 more days until the Big-Blocks are back in competition during the Florida DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park on Feb. 8-19, 2011. The 40th Annual DIRTcar Nationals www.DIRTcarNationals.com officially kicks off DIRTcar Racing’s 36th consecutive season of operation with the mighty Modifieds from the Northeast in action for the 14th straight year during the week leading up to the Daytona 500 (Feb. 20). The schedule leads off (Feb. 16) with three 30-lap main events and the curtain drops with a big 50-lap finale to close out the Big-Block tour. The 2011 edition marks the 27th trek to Florida for Northeastern Modified teams since 1978 and it will be DIRTcar's 20th visit to Volusia since staging its inaugural event in 1982.