Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – MIDDLETOWN, NY – In recent years, when he’s been in the starting line-up, Matt Sheppard has owned the Orange County Fair Speedway.
That didn’t change Saturday night in the Short Track Super Series “Elite” event on the Hard Clay.
Sheppard driver drew the pole and lead nearly every single circuit around the Middletown, NY oval. From the drop of the green, it was outside pole sitter Mike Mahaney who took the lead.
However, Sheppard caught a lucky break when Mahaney had misfortune on the second lap and came to a stop on the front stretch.
From that point on, the Savannah, NY driver only had to deal with lap traffic and a two late race cautions that put the 8H of Max McLaughlin on his inside. That didn’t faze him in the least as Sheppard went on to collect the big $25,000 first place check, which was a nice rebound after heartbreak in the first Elite race in South Carolina.
“Everything went wrong for us at Cherokee, but we had a really fast car there,” Sheppard said. “We also had a really fast car here tonight but we certainly got some breaks.”
Starting from the front row always helps, and for Sheppard Saturday at Orange County, that was very true.
“We got a good starting position tonight,” he said. “I don’t know if it was pretty all night but we got to victory lane and we’re excited about that.”
Throughout the 50-lap event, the bottom groove of the track seemed to be the way to go. However, Sheppard was able to put his car through the middle to high side on more than one occasion.
In short, the 9s could run wherever he wanted to and that might have been a key to his win.
“Our car was definitely very maneuverable tonight,” he said. “I would have liked it to be a little bit tighter but it got the job done when we needed it to.”
Even as good as his car was, at several points during the course of the race, Sheppard felt like he was in trouble.
“The thing just quit taking off,” he said. “I don’t know. At one point I thought maybe we had water in the fuel or it dropped a cylinder. I’m not 100% sure but we made it.”
No matter how, Matt Sheppard got the job done on Saturday night. He was able to win his heat race which ultimately put him in the redraw, and dominated the feature event to collect the huge payday.
“Tonight was just a good night for us,” he said. “This place has certainly been good to us lately.”
Sheppard also had high praise for Speedway management and track prep.
“My hat’s off to the track crew,” he said. “This surface was in outstanding condition. I never would have known it was April 2nd. It was smooth as glass and we could race all over it. Hopefully they can keep it like this all year.”
Max McLaughlin brought his HBR #8H home in the runner-up spot after starting in the ninth position.
It was a good run for the Mooresville, NC driver who had a great race car early but had to fight through traffic during the mid-point of the race, just to get to second. That was his downfall.
“I think our car was just too good too early in the race,” McLaughlin said. “If you start off that good early in the night, you know it’s not going to be that good in a long race. If it had been a 30-lapper we might have been alright.”
When the laps were winding down, two cautions tightened the field back up and gave McLaughlin a shot at the leader. Sheppard took the top and gave Max the bottom.
Did he think he had a shot to steal the win away?
“Nah,” he said with a laugh. “I tried like hell. I was looking as much as I could to the right to time it perfectly. I felt like I timed the restart pretty good and had a good run on him. However, there was no passing tonight.”
He was close, but just didn’t have enough.
“I did everything I could to get a good run off of turn two,” he said. “By the time we were coming off the corner, he was two car lengths ahead of me but all-in-all, it was a good night. Hopefully we can get one spot better next time.”
Even finishing second to Sheppard on Saturday wasn’t a bad deal for Max who walked away with a $12,500 payday.
“I felt like we had a really good car but I definitely knew we were in trouble in the middle of the race,” he said. “When we were that good early on and I could still see him a little bit snug, I knew he would be better at the end. It is what it is.”
Saturday was another great finish for McLaughlin since his return to the Heinke-Baldwin Racing team, and he was quick to give the credit to his team for their success.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” he said. “They’re giving me really fast race cars every time out so it’s going to be a really fun year.”
For third place finisher Mat Williamson, after starting along side McLaughlin in the fifth row, he drove his #3 forward on the hard clay of Orange County, but did he use up his stuff too soon for a shot at the win?
“I got shuffled back on the original start,” Williamson said. “The car that was in the row ahead of me hit the wall and we dropped back to 12th. I didn’t feel that good.”
Was something wrong with the car or was it frustration?
“I kind of was aggravated by the whole situation,” he said. “That’s when I went to the top and started to make it work. It seemed like around lap 38 it started to get latched down around the bottom, but for a race early on in April, this track was pretty incredible.”
On the final restart, Williamson lined up fourth which put him right on the bumper of the leader Sheppard. Was he hoping he could latch on to the 9s and possibly have a shot at the victory?
“It certainly helped me that Matt picked the outside,” he said. “It’s weird. Everyone goes to the bottom after a lap but coming off of turn four, it’s like you need to be on the top.”
Even Williamson knows Sheppard was just in a league of his own on this night.
“Matt was really good tonight,” he said. “Hat’s off to those guys. They deserved the win. We’ll go back and work a little harder and hopefully we can run with them next time.”
‘Elite’ Series Round No. 2 Feature Finish (50 laps): MATT SHEPPARD, Max McLaughlin, Mat Williamson, Dan Creeden, Ryan Godown, Andy Bachetti, Anthony Perrego, Alan Johnson, Michael Maresca, Mike Gular, Alex Yankowski, Larry Wight, Jack Lehner, Stewart Friesen, David Schilling, Jimmy Horton, Richard Smith, Danny Tyler, Brett Haas, Billy Decker, Rocky Warner, Ronnie Johnson, Billy Pauch Jr., Ryan Watt, Jeff Taylor, J.R. Hurlburt, Brian Calabrese, Billy Van Inwegen, Bobby Hackel, Jerry Higbie, Mike Mahaney.
Did Not Qualify: Craig Mitchell, Neil Stratton, Tanner Van Doren, Darren Smith, Kyle Coffey, Demetrios Drellos, Dillon Steuer, Derek McGrew, Brett Tonkin, Bob Hentschel, Brian Gleason, John Ferrier, Jeremy Pitts, Danny Varin, Ryan Walther, Sammy Martz, Sr., J.R. Heffner, Adam Pierson, Peter Britten, Marc Johnson, Logan Watt, Melvin Schrufer, Bob McGannon, Daniel Morgiewicz, Tyler Boniface, Derek Bornt, Ryan Odasz, Erik Rudolph, Joey Coppola, Corey Lowitt, Geoff Quackenbush, Michael Loney, David Marcuccilli, Roger Henion, Bobby Flood, Jessica Friesen, Allison Ricci, Chris Stevens, Matt Janiak, Mike Trautschold.
American Racer/Lias Tire Bonuses (FREE Tire Certificates): Alan Johnson (eighth) & David Schilling (15th)
Behrent’s Performance Warehouse Bonuses ($50 Gift Cards): Dan Creeden (fourth) & Michael Maresca (ninth)
Beyea Custom Headers Redraw Bonus ($50): Ryan Watt (Redrew 14th)
Eibach Springs Bonus ($100 Certificate): Andy Bachetti (sixth)
Elite Welder Training & Testing Redraw Bonus ($200): Ryan Watt (Redrew 14th)
Frank Stevens & Sons Roofing Hard Charger ($350): Stewart Friesen (31st to 14th)
Henry’s Exhaust System Power Position ($50 Certificate): Alex Yankowski (11th)
Penske Racing Shocks Bonuses: Matt Sheppard (winner – $150 certificate); Max McLaughlin (second – $75 certificate); Mat Williamson (third – $50 certificate); Mike Gular (10th – $25 certificate)
Pete Gardner Memorial Heat Races ($112 Each): Danny Creeden, Michael Maresca, Alex Yankowski, Jimmy Horton, Matt Sheppard, Max McLaughlin, Mike Mahaney
Pete Gardner Memorial Heat-Race Second-Place Finishes ($56 Each): Ryan Godown, Mat Williamson, Anthony Perrego, Richard Smith, Andy Bachetti, Ryan Watt, Alan Johnson
Rock Fantasy Halfway Leader ($250): Matt Sheppard
Schultz Racing Fuel Cells Bonus ($100 Certificate): Mike Gular (10th)
Spyder Performance Filters Bonuses: Ryan Godown (fifth – FREE Filter); David Schilling (15th – 50-percent off certificate)
Sunoco Race Fuels/Insinger Performance Bonuses ($50 Certificates): Max McLaughlin (second), Larry Wight (12th) & Ronnie Johnson (22nd)
Wilwood Brakes ‘Lucky 7’ Award ($75 Certificate): Anthony Perrego (seventh)