RPW Column: Solid Efforts Friday By Sheppard & Decker Keep Both In Hunt For DIRTcar Nationals “Big Gator”

Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – BARBERVILLE, FL – Both second place finisher Matt Sheppard and third place runner Billy Decker had solid nights at Volusia Speedway Park Friday as part of the DIRTcar Nationals, but they were nowhere near as good as winner Michael Maresca.

For Sheppard, his night started off ‘smokin’…literally…as the driver of the 9s had an oil line come loose during time trials. The multi-time Super DIRTcar Series champion had a plume of blue smoke following him for more than half of his run.

In the heat race, however, he was able to get problem corrected and in the feature, it was game on. Sheppard fired from the outside of the front row and did everything he could to stick with Maresca. However, in the end, he only had a second-best car on Friday night.

“I think he was a little better than we were, anyway,” Sheppard said. “Once it latched on the bottom, I just tried to fall in line and make it to the end.”

Even though it wasn’t a win, Sheppard was pleased with his best finish of the DIRTcar Nationals.

“It was a good night for us,” he said. “We tried to give Michael (Maresca) a little bit of a run on the high side for a while. However, I just couldn’t get by him and he cleared down to the bottom.”

For third place Billy Decker, it was another podium finish and put him in the running for the Big Gator Super DIRTcar Series Championship when all is completed on Saturday night. Right now, the Gypsum Racing driver sits just five markers behind leader Max McLaughlin on the strength of four top five runs in four events.

“We like parking on the front stretch,” Decker said of his podium finish. “Obviously, we’d like to park down there (where Maresca was in victory lane but it’s been good.”

Friday night, Decker’s car was fast, but just not quick enough to get up and contend with the top two.

“The Gypsum Wholesalers car has been really good,” he said. “Everybody’s worked really hard. We’ve been consistent and we’ve had a rocket since we unloaded.”

The driver from Unadilla, NY is extremely pleased with how well his team has started their 2021 racing campaign.

“We’ve raced really well down here,” he said. “You know, we might not have time trialed really well some nights but we’ve raced really well.”

That’s something Decker knows is important. He understands starting the season strong will help to build that consistency throughout the year.

“Being able to race well is important,” he said. “We normally run really long races and we’re really looking forward to it. This is a nice way to start and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Can he grab his first gator of the DIRTcar Nationals on Saturday night?

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the race track is like,” he said. “Tomorrow (Saturday), we’ll probably be the first feature of the night so it’ll probably be a little more conducive to what it’s been the last couple of nights.”

How close it the Gypsum Racing 91? Is the balance there?

“I think it’s just a little bit of tweaking and I think we’re going to be right there,” he said. “The way the car fired tonight, I was very happy with the first two laps of a run. I think we might have found a little bit of something.”

Heading into the final night, Max McLaughlin has a five point lead on Decker for the Big Gator title with Friday night’s winner Michael Maresca and runner up Sheppard a mere 19 points back.

Peter Britten, who’s been consistent all week, completes the top five, 23 points behind McLaughlin.

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