Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – SYRACUSE, NY – From a kid sitting in the grandstands at Canandaigua to the upper echelons of Dirt Modified racing, Matt Sheppard has truly become a legend in the sport.
Nobody will ever debate that.
Now, that kid is a 10x Super DIRTcar Series Champion, and official received his accolades Saturday night during the DIRTcar Night of Champions in downtown Syracuse, NY.
“Man, we’ve had such a good run going,” Sheppard said. “Ten is a big number. It really is. It’s hard to sink in really but I’m just so proud of the group of people we have on this team. I couldn’t do this without them.”
When Sheppard makes that statement, he truly means it. This isn’t just his team. It’s a total effort.
“When it comes to my sponsors, we call them that but I truly think of them as partners,” he said. “I think we’re all partners in this deal. I also couldn’t do it without the people on this team. I have ten championships but so do a lot of the people that work on our team.”
It’s a collective effort to get the no. 9s on track each and ever race and to be as competitive as it is.
“You put a bunch of guys and a bunch of sponsors and a bunch of people together that have a knack for winning, it makes my job a whole heck of a lot easier,” he said. “Randy (Kisacky, Sheppard’s crew chief) said you need a good driver. I disagree with him.”
Kisacky was awarded the Mechanic of the Year Award during the evening and said the key to winning the award is having a good driver.
“I just hop in, steer the car and get to have fun,” Sheppard said. “These guys take care of the rest.”
This past season may not have been the winningest in Sheppard’s career on tour, but he sure made up for it with consistency. Out of 20 Series points events, Sheppard finished inside the top 10 an astonishing 19 times.
The 20th race, at Albany-Saratoga in September, saw Sheppard finish 17th. However he was again on his way to another top 10 finish until a flat tire forced him pitside for a change and a late rally.
“Luckily we got two wins at Charlotte for the World Finals to make our season look a little bit better,” he said. “However, on the Super DIRTcar Series, it was probably my best year ever. We were running fourth at Albany when we got a flat late in the race.”
It was that consistency that helped Sheppard make championship history.
“We were just rock solid on tour this year,” he said. “We overcame some adversity. We had some flats, went to the rear and drove back through. I think we got spun out leading one night. Just some weird stuff but also had something like a dozen top two finishes. That’s just an amazing year.”
Compared to his 2022 racing campaign that saw Sheppard win everything that wasn’t nailed down, he’s even more proud of his season in ’23 on the DIRTcar Series.
“We had a phenomenal year last year that everyone talks about,” he said. “I’m honestly really even prouder of our performance this year. We just didn’t have hardly any bad nights at all and that’s tough to do in this day in age.”
Not only did Sheppard grab hold of the all-time mark for Series championships, he also moved into second on the all-time wins list on tour with 94. Could he have imagined he’d be able to pass someone like Danny Johnson for this mark when he first sat behind the wheel of a racecar?
“Not at all,” he said. “I remember being the kid sitting in the grandstands at Canandaigua watching Danny and Alan (Johnson) and Bob (McCreadie) and those guys race. It seems like they won a million races and I just sat there watching while eating popcorn and now, here we are, we passed Danny.”
Now, there’s one guy left on the top of the list and he’s got over 140 checkered flags to his resume. That driver is Brett Hearn, and he’s the carrot that Sheppard is chasing.
“Obviously Brett’s won a ton in his career and captured a bunch of tour races,” he said. “We’re not done yet. Maybe someday we’ll catch him.”
At the rate Sheppard’s been going over the last few seasons, that number may not be too far off. He’s only six trips to victory lane away from number 100.
“We’re getting close to 100 and close to 500 total for my career,” he said. “We’ll work this winter to get everything prepared to try and get another championship and more wins next year.”