Matt Sheppard picked up where he left off on the 2009 Super DIRTcar Series, authoring a late race charge to score his first victory of the new decade in convincing fashion Thursday night in the 39th Annual Florida DIRTcar Nationals By University of Northwestern Ohio at Volusia Speedway Park.
The winningest DIRTcar Big-Block Modified driver in the Northeast last season also captured his first career feature win in the Sunshine State, establishing the second-generation standout from Waterloo, N.Y. as an early favorite to capture the overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Championship come autumn.
“It seems I’ve finished in just about every position but first here, so I finally accomplished that and now we can go for number two tomorrow,” remarked a confident Sheppard, 27, winner of 20 Big-Block main events in ’09, and already in prime position to carry the momentum back up north. “I think we’ve got the car to get the job done.”
“Tonight I could really put it anywhere on the race track. It was pretty good all night, especially at the end of the feature when it counted most. I really felt comfortable out there and that’s important at a place you only get to run at once a year,” added Sheppard, after parking the JB Motorsports no. 9s Xtreme Lubricants/Bicknell machine in the winner’s circle to collect the $2,000 payoff.
Sheppard’s dramatic ride to the front foiled a stellar effort put forth by Delaware driver Jamie Mills, who was forced to settle for runner-up laurels after starting 12th on the 26-car grid and relinquishing the lead with just five to go. Sussex, N.J. speedster Brett Hearn rebounded from a crash the previous night to fall into third ahead of Jimmy Phelps, a fourth-place finisher for a second straight show. Popular New Yorker Danny Johnson steered the spec motor-powered Bicknell entry to fifth-place in the 30-lap finale, which finished as light rain continued to fall.
The customary 4-wide parade lap that has become a trademark of the World Racing Group carried over to green flag racing as the mighty Mod Squad covered every inch of the ultra-fast Barberville half-mile looking for the quickest way around. Front row partners Billy Decker and Bobby Varin had trouble making up their minds on the multi-groove surface as the veteran racers swapped the lead twice high and low during the first five circuits.
Billy Pauch slowed between turns one and two to incur the only caution of the race, a slowdown that was followed immediately by the second red flag in two days. With fifth-place starter Sheppard locked into a fierce battle up front, teammate Jeff Brownell Jr. was mired mid-pack before providing Florida fans with one of the most spectacular rollovers witnessed during race weeks.
The highlight film clip began with Brownell’s no. 29 car digging in deep down low entering turn three on the lap eight restart. His Xtreme Lubricants/Bicknell machine turned sideways, and once the right front wheel got its grip in the tacky clay, proceeded to flip end-over-end no less than 10 times before landing on the no. 0 South Jersey Overhead Door mount of New Jersey invader Richie Pratt Jr.
No injuries were reported yet before the race could resume, the night was over for seven of the 10 cars involved in the wild melee, with Jimmy Horton the lone driver to need direct assistance as Dick Biever’s no 14 Alpha Distribution Solutions-McKeansburg Hotel/TEO entry sat motionless on its roof between turns three and four.
The remaining 19 cars refired 15 minutes later and in less than 10 more, Sheppard was standing in the winner’s circle and joined by Mills and Hearn on the frontstretch podium.
Mills had blasted from third to first on lap nine, overtaking both Decker and Hearn rim-riding aboard his I.G.Burton Car Dealership-ReMax Realtor-L&W Ins./Bicknell as the trio rounded turn four. Hearn wrestled away second from Decker by lap 15 and the next time around the no. 91 car suddenly exited the track high in turn four before limping down the back stretch access road; a maneuver that cleared the path for Sheppard to inherit third.
‘Super Matt’ pulled alongside Hearn on lap 20 and a half-dozen circuits later ducked under Mills to forge the final lead change as 17 cars remained trackside. The margin of victory ballooned to a full straightaway just four laps later while Hearn crept right up to Mills bumper as the final checkered flag waved.
“When the race started out I was okay but not any faster than any of the other guys, and the leaders were getting away,” noted Sheppard, after notching his 55th career DIRTcar Big-Block victory some 1,500 miles from home. “I was about the same speed as the guys in front of me, don’t really know if we got better or they got slower the longer the race went on. But man, at the end of the race that car was on rails.”
“We finished last season so strong, to come down here and get one under our belt right away, it seems we’re picking up right where we left off. And any night you can get by Brett you’re having a good night. So tonight was definitely a good one,” added Sheppard, after improving five positions from the night before to emerge as the Florida mini-series points leader through two of four scheduled events.
A three-time VSP race winner, including a 30-lap triumph last winter, Mills regrouped after finishing 18th the night before on the heels of one of the most thrilling performances of the week.
“I didn’t want to think about last night, just erase it from my memory,” commented Mills, 39, who suddenly slid off the track high in turn four on Wednesday before retiring pitside for the remainder. “I think it was more brain fade than anything else.”
“But its good that the fastest car won out here tonight, I’ve been in that position a couple times before. Matt had the best car so I’m happy to finish second the way he ran all night. He was the one we had to beat and just came up a little short,” Mills said.
After bending his primary Madsen Motorsports no. 20 Wentworth Custom Homes-Benjamin Moore Paints/TEO in a wild front stretch incident the night before, Hearn was back in form finishing third after qualifying for his 50th consecutive Florida feature since DIRTcar Racing returned to the Route 40 oval in 1998.
“There was a lot of clay flying at the end and it was getting tough to see, but I had a lot more fun than yesterday,” remarked Hearn, 51, a winner of 19 features during DIRTcar Nationals competition dating back to 1993. “We had to park the primary car after yesterday but fortunately we brought down two cars that were both prepared. It just shows what kind of team we have, coming back with different car and not missing a beat.”
Mirroring the formula put in place the day before, four qualifying heats were used to break down the 42-car field, with a pair of consolation events and two provisional starting spots provided to make up the 26-car starting field. John Stangle, Hearn, Phelps and Randy Chrysler scored heat race wins while Brownell and Jimmy Horton won last chance consolation round qualifiers to help determine the feature grid.
Sheppard leads the ground-pounding NE Modifieds back to Volusia for two more days of Big-Block action, closing out Friday with a traditional 30-lap feature before concluding with the fourth and final round on Saturday, February 13 as a $5,000-to-win 50-lap championship event will decide the 2010 DIRTcar Nationals points championship.
Through two races, Sheppard tops the point standings with 106 markers while Phelps (100) is right in the shadows just six back. Friesen and Varin are deadlocked with 98 points apiece while Dale Planck (92) stands fifth with two events remaining.