Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – PORT ROYAL, PA – Saturday night’s Short Track Super Series event at Port Royal Speedway was one for the ages.
The last 10 laps pinned two of the best in Modified racing against each other, head to head, with Stewart Friesen leading and Matt Sheppard chasing.
Many will say that shifting the Speed Showcase from 200 laps to 75 was the right move. For Sheppard, 75 he was thankfully the right amount. For Friesen, he would have preferred one less. However, for the fans, it was perfect.
Matt Sheppard made a power move on the final lap around the 44 of Friesen as the two exited the second corner, but to say this was just another big win for the 9s was an understatement. He had to work for this one.
After having a right rear flat tire just 15 laps in, Sheppard went to the rear of the field and had to work his way through the stout field of Modified racers, all the while trying to protect his right rear sneaker.
The only saving grace for him was that his tire was that many laps fresher than everyone else’s. That allowed the Savannah, NY driver to push a little harder when it counted and run the extreme outside when everyone else was running the inside.
That may have been the turning point.
“There came a point in the race where we finally got some open race track after coming up from the rear,” Sheppard said. “That’s when we started making the top work and passing some cars. I started to get more and more comfortable up there.”
That only helped to boost Sheppard’s confidence as the race went on that he could get back to the front.
“Especially in turns one and two, bouncing it off the cushion, I was able to get some good runs,” he said. “We got cautions at the right time near the end, as the race played out. We got up to 12th and were able to pick off a few cars and got another caution, got back up on the outside and picked off a few more.”
Then, the lap counter clicked off 10 to go. That’s when Sheppard had made his way to the runner-up spot and began chasing the 44 down. It was on.
“I didn’t get going after that final restart as good I thought,” he said. “I kind of changed my line up a bit in one and two. Earlier in the race, I was having some success in one and two, bouncing off the board, driving back across the race track and having a really good run down the backstretch.”
Not anymore, though.
“That kind of wasn’t working for me anymore,” he said. “I almost messed up a little bit and stayed on the cushion and followed it all the way around one and two. I thought to myself I was actually faster doing that.”
That is when Sheppard really began to make ground on the leader.
“The last three laps, we started running Stewie down,” he said. “I got around him that one time and got way high in three and four and he drove back by me. Then, we nailed it just right in one and two on the last lap and it was just enough to hold him off.”
After having to come from the back with only about 60 laps remaining, even Sheppard didn’t believe it could happen.
“What a crazy race and a crazy finish,” he said. “I keep saying these wins are unexpected but this one was definitely unexpected tonight.”
No matter what, when the cards were on the table, Sheppard was in contention.
“I didn’t feel like we had that great of speed here all weekend,” he said. “I really didn’t, until maybe the last 25 laps. However, that’s been the story of the last few weeks. We’ve been good when the money’s on the line.”
For Stewart Friesen, who started 24th after having to transfer through a last chance qualifier, he had the $50,000 check in his sights but it just slipped through his fingers.
“I knew I was in trouble there with tires,” Friesen said. “They were just burned up. I should have pitted on lap 20 or so. I guess we would have needed it. That was a better strategy.”
The disappointment in Friesen’s voice was evident. He had this race but came up one lap short of cashing in but it wasn’t for a lack of effort from his crew.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” he said. “Big thanks to Chris Larson and all of my guys, Jess and Parker. It is what it is.”
Could having better luck in his heat racing a starting higher on the grid have helped Friesen conserve his car differently during the feature?
“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “I thought running the wall in (turns) one and two was kind of a safer bet to try and keep the tire underneath me. Ultimately, it wasn’t.”
Jimmy Phelps led the Speed Showcase 75 early on until Friesen took the top spot away around the one-third mark of the event but was still able to come home with a fine third place finish in his first ever race at Port Royal.
“We had a really good car tonight,” Phelps said. “Obviously, these two were a little better when it counted. We’ll go back, put it in our notebook and try and get a little better.”
Being his first race, Phelps thanked his crew for the effort and dedication they gave to give him a car capable of winning.
“I can’t thank these guys on this crew enough,” he said. “They did a great job all weekend. They gave me a car I thought could have one there for a little while. We missed it just a little bit but had good track position and were able to hold on for a podium finish so we’re happy.”
The race had several twists and turns which included a couple long stretches of green flag racing while there were also some lengthy cautions. How did that play into Phelps’ strategy?
“We were good early on,” he said. “I think once we got down through our sipes and such on the tires, the game changed a little bit. The track started to move around and get a little greasy. We were kind of on the edge of our seat on every restart to see what we had when we got to turn one because things were changing a lot depending on how long the yellows were.”
Then, things began to even out but Phelps just didn’t have enough for Sheppard and Friesen.
“After two or three laps, we’d get rolling again,” he said. “We were a tick off of these two but most people are these days. To be in the hunt and to be able to hang in the same picture with them, it gives us something to work with. We’ll take that.”
Larry Wight came across the line in fourth but was disqualified at the scales for weight. That moved Anthony Perrego into the fourth position with Alex Yankowski completing the top five.
Feature Finish (75 laps): MATT SHEPPARD, Stewart Friesen, Jimmy Phelps, Anthony Perrego, Alex Yankowski, Ryan Godown, Matt Stangle, Alan Johnson, Tyler Dippel, Mat Williamson, Dan Creeden, Ronnie Johnson, Louden Reimert, Jeff Strunk, Brett Haas, Demetrios Drellos, Duane Howard, Brandon Grosso, Danny Bouc, Ryan Watt, Craig Von Dohren, Jimmy Horton, Rocky Warner, Andy Bachetti, Mike Gular, John Willman, Mike Mahaney, Jordan Watson, Max McLaughlin, Mike Trautschold, David Schilling, Keith Flach, Billy Pauch, Jr., Darren Smith, Billy Decker
Disqualified: Larry Wight (weight)
Did Not Qualify: Sam Martz Jr., Alex Payne, Sam Martz Sr., Joseph Watson, Justin Grosso, Bob McGannon, Daniel Morgiewicz, Brett Tonkin, Rick Laubach, Peter Britten, Jared Umbenhauer, Danny Johnson, Kyle Coffey, Joey Coppola, Sean Weiss, Cole Youse, Cole Stangle, Cale Ross, Jacob Dgien, Neil Stratton, Ryan Riddle, Joe Judge, Ron Myers, Chris Curtis, Ryan Krachun
American Racer/Lias Tire Bonuses (FREE Tire Certificates): Alan Johnson (8th) & Jeff Strunk (14th)
Behrent’s Performance Warehouse Bonuses ($50 Gift Cards): Anthony Perrego (fourth) & Tyler Dippel (ninth)
Behrent’s Performance Warehouse Qualifying Race Bonuses ($200): Anthony Perrego, Matt Sheppard, Danny Bouc, Craig Von Dohren, Brandon Grasso, Mat Williamson, Mike Gular, Louden Reimert, Billy Pauch, Jr., Mike Trautschold, Jimmy Horton, Jeff Strunk, Dan Creeden, Duane Howard, Brett Haas, Jordan Watson, Larry Wight, Alex Yankowski, Ronnie Johnson, Demetrios Drellos.
Beyea Custom Headers Redraw Bonus ($50): Billy Pauch, Jr. (Redrew 10th)
Danny’s Pizza Pizzazz Halfway Leader Bonus ($200): Stewart Friesen
Dirt Track Digest Qualifying Race Winners ($750 each): Tyler Dippel, Max McLaughlin, Mike Mahaney, Ryan Godown, Jimmy Phelps
Eibach Springs Bonus ($100 Certificate): Ryan Godown (sixth)
Elite Welder Training & Testing Redraw Bonus ($200): Billy Pauch, Jr. (Redrew 10th)
Fastline Performance Hard Charger Award Bonus ($500): Stewart Friesen (24th to 2nd)
Henry’s Exhaust System Power Position ($50 Certificate): Dan Creeden (11th)
Mike Aylesworth Memorial B-Main Bonuses ($100): Jordan Watson, Louden Reimert, Jeff Strunk
Penske Racing Shocks Bonuses: Matt Sheppard (winner – $150 certificate); Stewart Friesen (second – $75 certificate); Jimmy Phelps (third – $50 certificate); Mat Williamson (10th – $25 certificate)
Schultz Racing Fuel Cells Bonus ($100 Certificate): Mat Williamson (10th)
Spyder Performance Filters Bonuses: Alex Yankowski (fifth – FREE Filter); Brett Haas (15th – 50-percent off certificate)
Sunoco Race Fuels/Insinger Performance Bonuses ($50 Certificates): Stewart Friesen (second), Ronnie Johnson (12th) & Jimmy Horton (22nd)
Wilwood Brakes ‘Lucky 7’ Award ($75 Certificate): Matt Stangle (seventh)