Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – FONDA, NY – FINALLY!!!
There isn’t much Matt Sheppard hasn’t won in his racing career, but the Fonda 200 has eluded him.
That was, however, until Saturday night, when the Savannah, NY driver finally parked on Checkered Board Square at the “Track of Champions” as winner of the 30th annual event and pocked the big $53,000 paycheck.
“This is just crazy,” Sheppard said. “We had a decent race car all weekend, but it was just that, decent. It wasn’t good enough to win but we kept working on it and working on it and took one last stab at it at the halfway break. Then, this thing really came to life in the second hundred.”
That’s when, after starting 13th on the restart, Sheppard charged to the front. He would eventually grab the lead from front man Marc Johnson with 65 laps remaining.
“We finally found the balance I was looking for, cautions went our way and we got through traffic,” he said. “I’m just ecstatic right now. This place has been a thorn in our side.”
To win the event, Sheppard knew he’d have to beat the best in Dirt Modified racing, of which he’s one, but he’d also have to beat the guy who’s won the event the last two times it’s been run.
“Stewart’s (Friesen) been hard to beat but he had trouble tonight,” he said. “Man, this 9s was a rocket.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing to the checkers, however. As the laps went on, the handling on Sheppard’s car began to go away and let the 44 of Anthony Perrego creep in.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” he said. “I felt pretty comfortable and then with about three or four to go, I felt like the thing dropped down on the left rear.”
With his heart nearly sinking, Sheppard soldered on.
“I thought I was getting a flat and I was scared to death,” he said. “Then, it took back off and not really sure but here we are and I don’t care.”
How important was the halfway break for Sheppard? Was this the make-or-break moment for he and his team if they wanted to win this race?
“We’ve been here for three days and I just haven’t been happy with this race car,” he said. “We opted to take one final stab at it at the break and luckily we guessed right.”
Afterwards, you could see the big sigh of relief across Sheppard face that he’s finally conquered the Fonda 200.
“This has been such a great season for us,” he said. “This was definitely the crown jewel we’ve been looking for.”
Second place in the feature and $20,000 richer was Anthony Perrego. Late in the feature, it looked like he might be closing in on the big payday as Sheppard’s car began to stumble but in the end he had to settle for runner-up.
“Yea, Matt missed it in one and two once and we closed in on him,” Perrego said. “However, then in three and four we just got tight and he gained on us again.”
Perrego’s car started to come to life, as well, in the final 100 laps of the feature.
“Our car really rolled good in the second half of the race,” he said. “It was a great night for us to come home second.”
As the race went on, Perrego could see Sheppard was coming to him. How did he keep the 44 underneath him while still charging?
“We were just trying to bide our time and be patient,” he said. “I overdrove it one lap and tried to calm myself down. Then, we were able to get back to him but just came up one spot short.”
Mike Mahaney came home third for the third straight year. With 84 circuits remaining, he was in third and in contention to for the victory when contact between himself and Sheppard forced the 35 up the track.
“You could say we needed to make a better adjustment or you could say we got shoved out of the way,” Mahaney said. “One or the other but they were a little faster. I feel like we were better in the first half of the race and the track changed.”
Based on the racing in the first 100 laps, at the halfway break, Mahaney and his team made adjustments for the track conditions. Then, they were thrown a twist.
“I feel like we were better in the first half of the race,” he said. Then, the track changed. The first hundred, we had the right stuff and then the second was a lot different. It’s a crapshoot when you already make your adjustments and then they do track prep. It’s a really serious challenge to face.”
After the break, the setup for Mahaney’s 35 machine seemed to be built for green flag runs rather than short-run speed.
“Our tires seemed to fire on long runs,” he said. “The car seemed to come in but on those restarts, it wasn’t that great. Lap cars seemed to help at times and sometimes they hurt.”
Danny Varin came home in fourth and Demetrios Drellos crossed the line in fifth. However, the 111 came up light at the scales so that moved the S&S Asphalt Paving #9 of Marc Johnson, who led several laps in the final half of the race, into fifth.
Cody Clark came home with the $2,000-to-win Sportsman feature with Troy Zilles coming home in second.
Albany-Saratoga and Lebanon Valley Speedway Sportsman champion for 2022, Tim Hartman Jr., came home third with Michael Ballestaro and Fonda Speedway titlist from this season, Payton Talbot, completing the top five.
STSS SUNOCO MODIFIED “FONDA 200” FEATURE – 200-LAPS – $53,000 TO WIN – MATT SHEPPARD, Anthony Perrego, Mike Mahaney, Danny Varin, Marc Johnson, Billy Decker, Andy Bachetti, Jessica Friesen, Max McLaughlin, Brian Gleason, Bobby Varin, Rocky Warner, David Schilling, Tyler Dippel, Chris Curtis, Alex Yankowski, JaMike Sowle, Brian Pessolano, Mat Williamson, Jimmy Horton, Payton Talbot, Stewart Friesen, Alan Johnson, Dave Constantino, Ronnie Johnson, Nick Heywood, Allison Ricci, Bobby Hackel IV, Aaron Jacobs, Matt DeLorenzo, Ryan Godown, Brett Haas, JR Hurlburt, Tucker O’Connor, Jeff Trombley, Craig Hanson, Darwin Greene, Danny Creeden, Tim Fuller, Jack Lehner, Demetrious Drellos (DQ Weight)
1st win of 2022 and the fifth of his career in the division for Sheppard at Fonda
LAP LEADERS – 1-29 Stewart Friesen, 30-32 Mahaney, 33-34 Perrego, 35 Stewart Friesen, 36-89 Mahaney, 90-100 Perrego, 101-107 Decker, 108-110 Marc Johnson, 111-114 Decker, 115-134 Marc Johnson, 135-200 Sheppard
“B” MAIN RACE WINNERS – Dippel, Horton
DID NOT QUALIFY – Scott Huber, Ryan Darcy, Jason Reome, Nick Stone, Neil Stratton, Danny Johnson, Matt Sobiech, Tanner Warner, Ancel Collins, Kurtis Hohensheldt, Daniel Morgiewicz, Jeremy Slosek
STSS SWAGGER FACTORY APPAREL CRATE 602 SPORTSMAN FEATURE – 25-LAPS – CODY CLARK, Troy Zilles, Tim Hartman Jr., Michael Ballestero, Payton Talbot, Steve Davis, Troy Palmer, Brendan Gibbons, Chad Edwards, Jeremy Tyrrell, Stephen Gray, Chip Constantino, Mark Mortensen, Jeremy Slosek, Dan Santabarbara, Dylan Madsen, Tyler Peet, Michael McCallion, Kyle Dingman, Jason Greco, Tim Deffer, Ben Feldman, Matthew Perry, Michael Arnold, Kurtis Hohensheldt, Carter Gibbons, Clayton DuMond, Travis Green, Harry Shaffer, Tanner Warner
4th win of 2022 and the 17th of his career in the division for Clark