By CAMDEN PROUD
Matt Sheppard of Waterloo, N.Y. has now won at forty different race tracks throughout his illustrious dirt modified career, but until last night’s Short Track Super Series Halmar North Region ‘Hard Clay Open,’ the Orange County Fair Speedway was not one of them.
Sheppard has raced at Middletown for two decades and has more second place finishes there than he might care to admit. He ran second to Brett Hearn in the 2014 Eastern States 200. In the 2016 Hard Clay Open, he may very well have had the car to beat, but instead wound up pitside changing a flat tire. For whatever reason, Orange County has always been a source of aggravation for Sheppard. Last night everything “finally” went his way.
“Finally,” said a very relieved Sheppard after collecting his $11,919 winning pay check in victory lane. “Luck was actually on our side for once here. We kept air in the tires, and I think the biggest thing is we had the fastest race car today and that definitely helps at this place.”
The Hurlock Auto & Speed No. 9S was indeed the fastest car on the surface all day long. Sheppard simply went out for a Sunday drive in his qualifying heat race, winning by almost half a track. He later collected a $150 bonus from Precision Hydraulic and Oil for winning the Halfway Cash Dash. The only hiccup was a poor redraw, but Sheppard did what can often be a bit more difficult on Middletown’s Hard Clay. He drove his car through the field and earned over $12,000 in total prize money.
“The track was not your typical Middletown and that may have ended up helping me out in the long run,” quipped Sheppard. “It might also have been that I just found the groove quicker than everybody else did. I’m not really sure, but I am just so excited. This place has been a thorn in my side for a long time and it feels good to finally pull it out.”
Although showing all kinds of speed throughout the afternoon, Sheppard was well aware that starting position wasn’t on his side for the 50-lap main event. The same could be said for Stewart Friesen, who had to line up in the twentieth position after attempting qualification through one of three consolation events. On a sunny Spring afternoon at the Legendary House of Power, however, starting position seemingly did not matter – at least for this pair. Two of the very best active drivers on the dirt circuit assertively charged past all challengers and wound up finishing 1-2. Go figure.
“You could definitely do some passing and work with things out there today,” Sheppard commented. “We were able to start twelfth and get up to the lead in the first half of the race and I know Stewie started way deep and was able to get up there right behind us as well. Fortunately the redraw didn’t come back to bite us too bad this time.”
It was an Orange County victory at last. Twenty years is undoubtedly an enduring period of time to come to the same race track and play second fiddle, especially when your name is Matt Sheppard. So, is there any one particular second place finish he hasn’t been able to let go of over all these years? “Eh, not really,” he said, but the seven time Super DIRTcar Series champion was able to rattle a few of those pesky runner-up finishes off the top of his head.
“There were some where I thought we could win and finished second, and maybe just couldn’t pass or whatever. A couple years ago I thought we had a really good shot to win this Hard Clay race and got a flat. We got up to second in the Fall Short Track race last year which wasn’t bad. I’ve been second in the Eastern States 200, and second in a couple 100-lap Super DIRTcar Series shows here too. Some of them we got beat by better cars, some we had horrible luck, and others we felt decent and couldn’t pass, but it just feels good to finally get in victory lane.”
To get there, Sheppard first got to the top three and for five laps, picked away at early leaders Danny Varin and Anthony Perrego. He then dove under Varin to take the lead on lap 16. When the pass was made, it was all over as Super Matt simply walked away from everyone. It seemed the only thing that could slow the 9S down was the caution flag. Fortunately for Matt, it only came out twice. Unfortunately, the last one was thrown with two laps remaining and it allowed a very hard charging Stewart Friesen to plant the No. 44 right on his back bumper.
“I really didn’t want to see it,” Sheppard said of the yellow flag. “I was watching the lap counter and I was in a good rhythm clicking off lapped cars and everything felt good. A lot of stuff can change with these race cars under caution. You go green again with the track dirty and the tires cooled off, so a lot of weird stuff can happen and I just didn’t want to see that caution especially with Stewie behind me being as good as he is here. I knew if I nailed the exit off of two for two laps we’d be alright, but I was just very relieved to see that checkered flag today.”
Sunday’s triumph was the eighth of Sheppard’s career on Brett Deyo’s Short Track Super Series. Between the Hurlock No. 9HAS and the Sweetner’s No. 92S, Super Matt ran nearly the entire North and South STSS schedule last season. He confirmed that is again the plan for 2019 as his team aims to hit any shows that don’t conflict with the Super DIRTcar Series tour.
The next Short Track Super Series event is set to take place as part of the Velocita-USA South Region schedule on Tuesday, April 30. The Modifieds will compete in the ‘Diamond State 50’ at the Delaware International Speedway in Delmar, D.E.