Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – VERNON, NY – That’s what you call a driving display Richie would be proud of.
On a night honoring the legend Richie Evans at his home track, Matt Sheppard drove like he had 61’s on the doors of his Modified as he went from deep on the starting grid to capture the 61-lap Short Track Super Series event at Utica-Rome Speedway on Thursday.
After a myriad of problems forced Sheppard to a consolation event (which he won) if he wanted to make the starting line-up, the veteran cut through the field like a hot knife through butter and defended his home turf in the Richie Evans Remembered 61.
The night got off to a rocky start as ignition issues in the team’s new Bicknell forced Sheppard from the race and into the last chance event. He won that but would have to drive from deep if he wanted any chance at the $6,100 top prize.
He would do just that. By lap 40 of the feature, it was like old times as Sheppard had driven to the runner-up spot and then was poised to chase after leader Stewart Friesen who started fifth. He was inching closer and closer to the Sprakers, NY driver but the gap was erased thanks to a stopped #4 of Andy Bachetti in turn two.
That was the break Sheppard needed as he powered to the outside of Friesen on the restart and it was all she wrote. From there, even with a caution for Mike Mahaney and Billy Decker who came together with just five laps remaining, nothing was stopping Sheppard on this night.
“What a night,” Sheppard said. “Lots of ups and downs. We’ve been struggling with motor issues. We hurt a motor last week and it’s out getting fixed right now. Chuck from CC Performance ran this engine out to us yesterday and we put it in. This is the first night on the car and engine and we got to show how good it was tonight.”
The driver from Savannah, NY took off right from the get-go and proved why he is one of the best in the business as the race went on, working his way through traffic headed towards the front.
“I felt good off the drop of the green,” he said. “The track was pretty grippy. It had more than even a regular Friday night. I stalled out a little bit in the middle but then, towards the end of the race, I think it really started blowing off and we started rolling again. It was just one of those nights…started out horribly but a storybook ending.”
Did Sheppard think starting as far back as he was that he’d be able to get into the mix for the win?
“We had some gremlins in the heat race and were battling an ignition skip,” he said. “It was looking a little bleak but I told one of my crew guys before the feature that the car was driving really well and I’d rather start 22nd with a good-driving car than on the pole with one that wasn’t.”
Sheppard has been a man on a mission during weekly competition at Utica-Rome this season. Through last Friday night’s action, he’s visited victory lane on six different occasions and now he can tack on another with his victory against the Short Track Super Series’ best.
“It feels good to defend our home turf here,” he said. “The last few weeks we’ve had some weird stuff happen but I feel like we’ve had a really good race car all season at Utica and tonight, we showed it.”
Obviously it paid off, but what goes into the decision to try a new race car in an event as prestigious as the one on Thursday night?
“We took a pretty big gamble coming in here tonight,” he said. “This car had never seen the race track. The engine is owned by Tommy from Westmoreland Golf Club and, as I said, we just got it back. The dyno was broke so we didn’t get to dyno the engine. I told them let’s put it in the car and I’ll dyno it at Utica.”
It worked out perfect in the end for the defending track champion.
“Thank got everything went right tonight,” he said. “The crew’s been busting their butts. We had a shop full of racecars in pieces yesterday. Randy (Kisacky) came over and was there all day yesterday and then back again this morning. We’ve got just so many great people behind this team and I couldn’t do it without all of them.”
Second place on the night was Stewart Friesen. Friesen led a lot of laps during the 61-lap affair but came up one spot short in defending his title in the event.
“I saw Matt sneaking up the leaderboard as the race went on,” Friesen said. “I wasn’t sure if we had enough to hold him off or not. He got in front of us on that restart and it was game over for us after that.”
Rounding out the podium was Rocky Warner in the Jason Simmons-owned #98. Was Warner happy with how his event played out?
“Keeping company with Matt and Stewart, there are no complaints here,” Warner said. “Obviously you want to win ever race you enter, but this is our third race with this car and motor combination thanks to Jason and his family. To be on the same straightaway at the end of one of these races with these guys, I’m pretty happy.”
As the laps wound down, Warner found himself getting caught up in the fact of who he was racing with. He loved every minute of it.
“I think Tim Fuller is probably one of the coolest guys in the world,” he said. “He can wheel a race car like no other. He’s pretty impressive to watch. It’s just unbelievable how good he is. Battling with him and Mat Williamson shows that we’re gaining ground. We’re going in the right direction and hopefully we can get a little bit more but I don’t know what we’ve got to do to keep up with the 9s. I’m happy to be running as well as we are right now.”
Williamson came home in fourth with veteran Jimmy Phelps, charging late in the feature, completing the top five.
Feature Finish (61 laps): MATT SHEPPARD, Stewart Friesen, Rocky Warner, Mat Williamson, Jimmy Phelps, Tim Fuller, Anthony Perrego, Marc Johnson, Ronnie Johnson, Max McLaughlin, Jessica Friesen, Erick Rudolph, Michael Trautschold, Bobby Hackel IV, Dan Creeden, Darren Smith, Mike Mahaney, Billy Decker, Brett Haas, Andy Bachetti, Dave Marcuccilli, Shaun Walker, Justin Wright, Kyle Coffey, Alex Yankowski, Pat Ward, David Schilling.
Did Not Qualify: Will Shields, Nick Heywood, Alan Johnson, J.R. Hurlburt, Willy Decker, Neil Stratton, Randy Shantel, JaMike Sowle, Roger Henion, Daniel Morgiewicz, Joel Thomas.
Algonkin Motel Hard Charger ($261): Matt Sheppard (22nd to 1st)
American Racer/Lias Tire Bonuses (FREE Tire Certificates): Anthony Perrego (seventh) & Mike Trautschold (13th)
Behrent’s Performance Warehouse Bonuses ($50 Gift Cards): Mat Williamson (fourth) & Ronnie Johnson (ninth)
Beyea Custom Headers Redraw Bonus ($50): Mac McLaughlin (redrew 12th)
EIBACH Springs Bonus ($100 Certificate): Tim Fuller (sixth)
FloRacing Heat Winner Bonuses ($61 Each): Max McLaughlin, Jimmy Phelps, Justin Wright, Ronnie Johnson
Henry’s Exhaust System Power Position ($50 Certificate): Jessica Friesen (11th)
NYSSCA Bonus ($100): Matt Sheppard
Penske Racing Shocks Bonuses: Matt Sheppard (first – $150 certificate); Stewart Friesen (second – $75 certificate); Rocky Warner (third – $50 certificate)
Schultz Racing Fuel Cells Bonus ($100 Certificate): Max McLaughlin (10th)
Spyder Performance Filters Bonuses: Jimmy Phelps (fifth – FREE filter); Dan Creeden (15th – 50-percent off)
Sunoco Race Fuels/Insinger Performance Bonuses ($50 Certificates): Stewart Friesen (second); Erick Rudolph (12th); Shaun Walker (22nd)
Superior Remodeling Halfway Leader Bonus ($200): Stewart Friesen
Wilwood Brakes ‘Lucky 7’ Award ($75 Certificate): Anthony Perrego (seventh)