Column By: MIKE TRAVERSE / RPW – MIDDLETOWN, NY – It was a joy to watch.
The two winningest Northeast Big Block Dirt Modified drivers going at it for nearly the whole 200 lap distance.
Swapping the lead back and forth with so much side-by-side racing.
There were restart lane choice strategies and lapped traffic decisions. It was a titanic battle between what most would consider to be the two best in their division of racing.
It went all the way down to the final laps before the decision was final. Each of these gladiators had the lead in during the race on 8 different occasions. But in the end, it was Matt Sheppard winning a race that had eluded him throughout his career, the T-Mobile United Rentals DIRTcar Big Block Modifieds Eastern States 200 after a race long duel with Stewart Friesen.
After the great vintage car parade laps took place featuring the 00 coupe, the Batmobile, the Ferraiuolo 73, the Statewide 3 and others, it was time for the 200 to go green.
After Friesen took the lead on the start, the caution was quickly out for Steve Dodd, facing the wrong way in turn 1. Friesen was again out front ahead of Anthony Perrego. Sheppard was moving up to 4th from 8th starting spot by the end of lap 3.
Sheppard passed Kenny Tremont for 3rd on lap 8. By lap 10, Friesen had already caught the back of the field. Sheppard, using the high groove, then got by Perrego and passed Friesen on the outside on lap 16 to take the lead. Both Sheppard and Friesen were alternating grooves. After taking the lead, Sheppard moved to the bottom and Friesen moved up.
Further back, Tim McCreadie was moving forward, passing Tremont for 4th. On lap 24, Tremont started showing some smoke and then a lap later, spread oil on the front stretch. It was reported as a cut oil line to end Tremont’s day.
Friesen was again the leader on the restart as he got the jump on Sheppard as McCreadie moved into 3rd over Perrego. Friesen was able to open up a bit of the lead, using one lane off the bottom. Both he and Sheppard were able to pull away from 3rd on back.
Just before the 1/4 mark of lap 50, Friesen and Sheppard swapped the lead again in lapped traffic as the racing was side by side with Sheppard low and Friesen high.
The lap 50 running order was Friesen, Sheppard, McCreadie the top 3 with Perrego and Larry Wight side-by-side for 4th. Eventually, Wight nosed ahead of Perrego for 4th with Tim Fuller closing in on Anthony’s bumper.
Between laps 61 and 65, it was Sheppard and Friesen swapping the lead 3 times with Matt taking control on lap 65. Even with their back and forth, The 44 and the 9S were pulling away from the rest of the field. Spots 3 thru 8 were nose to tail with McCreadie, Wight, Perrego, Fuller, Billy Decker and Jimmy Horton . The constant side-by-side racing between the leaders was just an awesome thing for the fans to enjoy.
With longest green flag run the race had seen so far, Sheppard began to open the distance over Friesen. But the lapped traffic was getting harder to get by and Friesen once again moved in on Sheppard. On lap 80, it was Stewart back to the lead. Sammy Martz had a brush with the wall on lap 81 which brought out the yellow. It was a timely caution for McCreadie as he had a flat left rear. This created a flurry of pitstops for many of the leaders including the top 5.
Fuller was the leader when the race went back to green. Yellow was quickly out again 2 laps later as CG Morey and Tyler Trump tangled in turn 2. Friesen was on the move on the restart. Another caution on lap 96 led to a lap 99 restart which Friesen again was on top. The halfway break halted the race at lap 100 for cars that wanted to take fuel, but no tires. Some of the up front lead lap cars took the opportunity to pit including Fuller from 2nd and Horton.
As the second half of the race was ready to go, the running order saw Friesen and Sheppard back in their familiar 1st and 2nd spots followed by Jimmy Phelps, Andy Bachetti, Decker, Tommy Meier, McCreadie, Perrego, Ronnie Johnson and Mat Williamson in the top 10.
The restart saw Sheppard and Friesen with the side-by-side racing before Stewart was able to clear. By lap 109, it was again time for the leaders to deal with the lapped traffic. By now, Bachetti had worked his way into 3rd and Decker 4th. The race settled for a bit with the low grove becoming where everyone wanted to race. Friesen maneuvered through the traffic well enough to open the lead back up a bit.
Tyler Boniface slowed after 125 were complete to bring out the yellow. The restart saw contact between Meier and Dillon Steuer jamming up the drivers behind them to bring the yellow out. Fuller, Peter Britten, Wight and others headed into the pits.
Another quick caution occurred on lap 133. This restart saw Friesen back to the lead before caution for Zach Vavricka on lap 137. Phelps ducked into the pits under this caution.
The restart saw Decker putting some pressure on Sheppard for 2nd before things stabilized with Sheppard maintaining the spot and then closing in on Friesen. Sheppard went back to the lead on lap 148. With 50 to go, it was Sheppard over Friesen, Decker, Bachetti and McCreadie. By lap 155, Sheppard was again bottled up in traffic and Friesen once again was on the point. Just moments later, caution was out for Morey.
With 40 to go, it was back to green with Friesen leading Sheppard before some cars got together with Shawn Beardsley ending up on his roof. There were no injuries.
The restart saw Sheppard taking the lead on lap 162. After a caution for Danny Creeden on lap 166, Sheppard was back to the lead on the restart. With both the front runners using different restart lane choices, the race was quickly approaching the point where one mistake could be their undoing. Zach Vavricka got into Billy Decker’s tire here causing a caution.
Sheppard was again out front on the restart with Perrego moving past Friesen for 2nd. With caution flags laps not counted after lap 180, the teams close on fuel were maybe beginning to sweat. Lap 185 saw caution back out. Wight lost his track position with a pitstop. Williamson had moved up to 3rd after starting deep in the field with a Friday crash of his main car.
Sheppard moved out front one more time on the restart with Friesen moving back to 2nd. It was the final restart as Matt circled the track 14 more times, safely in front of Stewart to take the win with Williamson taking 3rd, Perrego 4th and Britten 5th. Spots 6 thru 10 were Fuller 6th, Steuer 7th, McCreadie 8th, Mike Mahaney 9th and Marc Johnson 10th.
As expected for a big race win, it was a very happy crew that greeted Super Matt in Victory Lane.
“It was a slugfest. There were so many points during the race that I thought we were the car to beat. And then, Stewie would jump by me and pull away and it would make me think if we had anything for him,” Sheppard said. “I pulled a rabbit out of my hat and got back around him. We went back-and-forth, but things worked out. We got some good restarts and I had a good line on the bottom. Got through the lapped traffic clean. Everything went our way today and that’s what it takes to win this race. You have to have a great race car and great people behind you. The pitstop was awesome, the crew was awesome. We are just excited. This race has been a thorn in my side for a long time .I was sick of finishing 2nd. I had a really good car last night, finished a close 2nd. It was close to a perfect weekend. The 3 crown jewels we went to this year we had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd. That’s a great thing for our team.”
Second place Friesen had these thoughts on the race.
“It was a heck of a race. Matt and I went back and forth for a while there. And he was better at the end. I’m proud of my guys. It was a good weekend. That’s how she goes. We went back-and-forth. lapped traffic was wild. The outside came back to life in the middle of the race.Pitstops shuffled the deck a little bit. It was fun. Coming out on the losing end of it stinks, but it was a fun battle all the way through It was a great racetrack this weekend. just proud of everybody here., they got it in great shape Thanks everybody for coming out and supporting it.”
After his problems on Friday, it was a well earned 3rd place for Williamson.
“I have to thank the great people that made it happen for us this weekend. The number 9 team, my guys. And I have to thank Kevin Starchak for his help in putting this deal together.”