By MIKE MALLETT
Sunday came down to a battle between super heroes in the final laps of the Billy Whittaker Cars 200 at NAPA Auto Parts Super DIRT Week XLVI. ‘Super’ Matt Sheppard battled ‘Batman’ Peter Britten with Sheppard getting the better of the Australian on the final lap to win the biggest Modified race of the season. It gave him the sweep of the weekend festivities at the Oswego Speedway as he also dominated Saturday’s Great Outdoors RV 150 for the 358-Modifieds. He took home $70,000 for the pair of wins.
“It’s big for us,” mentioned Sheppard. “It’s me that is spending a lot of money on this equipment to get it to come here. Running well and getting some money back in return is good for the program. It keeps us going, keeps us going in the winter and makes sure we got really good equipment to start next season with. Hopefully we get through another season here.”
It was Sheppard’s first win in the race since 2009 and the first time since 2006 that there was a weekend sweep. The last few events at Syracuse he was in the mix only to have gremlins pop up and then last year issues arose as well.
“Syracuse, Oswego, Super DIRT Week in general, I swear the years you are supposed to win it you don’t and the years you are not supposed to win it you end up winning it,” said Sheppard. “The last couple years at Syracuse I thought we had it won both times. The first year we had a little bit of a spotter issue, the second year I said there was no way anyone was going to go by me and my battery goes dead. Then last year we had chunk of mud wipe out the radiator and that took away our chances again. This year I thought we had done everything right and it turned out to be exactly wrong. We had to regroup and drive through the field. We had a last lap pass for the win, story book, crazy at the time and unorthodox I guess.”
Sheppard started the race from the point, leading the opening laps of the feature before heading down pit road about a quarter of the way through the event. The early pit stop seemed to be the right call as the track had taken rubber and everyone was stuck down to the bottom. As he said, he planned to ride and pass cars as he made his way back to the front.
“I actually thought we had done everything right in the beginning of the race,” stated Sheppard. “Pitting and putting tires on and cycling back to the front. I thought we’d be in good shape and the track did a 180. It went from rubbered up to ice slick and fresh tires were way more important than track position which was the complete opposite of yesterday.”
Sheppard held his own near the front of the field, but as the laps clicked off the track changed and the he was forced to make a decision. He was losing ground to the front of the pack. As he faded they made a decision to head pack to pit road to remove the harder compound tires in favor of softer Hoosiers around lap 150.
“We started back peddling through the field,” he said. “At that point we knew we had to put tires one, but the biggest question was when. We wanted to leave ourselves enough time to get back up through and we wanted to wait as long as we could so we had fresher tires so that we could get guys in front of us.”
Sheppard elected the change three tires on his ride. The changed both rear tires while also putting on a different right front tire. Having three new tires on the car made him the feel invincible as he worked his way back up through. He was one of the few, if not the only one, to change three tires on his car.
“I thought we had the time and you put fresh rear tires on it to get the back of the car stuck you want the thing to steer still too,” commented the Waterloo, N.Y., pilot. “Everyone thinks you need traction, it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t turn.”
The tires Sheppard put on, two of them, he ran in the 150 on Saturday. They more than did their fair share helping him get the job done.
“Funny story, we didn’t have the right size left rear with us so we ended up sanding and re-cutting the tire we won yesterday’s race with and put it on that last pit stop,” he said. “We actually won both races on the same left rear.”
Once returning to the track, Sheppard was on his game. Sheppard drove his Bicknell up the banking of the speedway to pass multiple cars a lap. He was making quick work of the field until he moved into the top five. Then things became much trickier as he had multi-time winner Stewart Friesen in front of him as well as Larry Wight and Britten.
“It was funny,” cited Sheppard. “I got up to fourth there and I had, I don’t want to say easy time, but I could pick my way up there pretty good. Then we got up to fourth and the three guys were rolling really good. It took me quite a while to get by Stewie (Friesen), then I was able to get by him. Same thing with Larry (Wight), I kind of ran him down but I wasn’t really catching him all that fast. Lapped traffic became the great equalizer. In open race track, all three of us carrying momentum, we all were pretty close to the same speed.”
As Sheppard mentioned, traffic became an issue in the final 25 laps of the feature. He used this traffic to get by Friesen and Wight.
“I don’t know if my car was a little more maneuverable in traffic or if the fresher tires were helping,” stated Sheppard. “It seemed like when they got bogged down I could maneuver better. I was able to get a big run off of two to get under Larry down the backstretch when he got bottled up behind Peter. Once we got to second, I was kind of bottled up behind Peter as well, almost got under him one time in three and four, but he was able to shut the door.
Sheppard stalked Britten for the final five laps before making his move on the final lap. Britten went to the bottom to protect while Sheppard went to the outside. He pulled even with him off of turn two before making the pass down the back straightaway.
“He decided he was going to protect the bottom,” mentioned Sheppard of Britten. “It just so happened that we had a open race track. We took the white flag. I had a clear run at the top of one. I sent it next to him to see if I could get it to stick and it did. Probably, in hindsight, not knowing, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to drive underneath him.”
Sheppard had nothing but praise for Britten. He ran a great race and nearly scored the biggest win of his career. He just made one mistake in the final lap that cost him the opportunity.
“He found himself in the situation that I was coming in there last year,” Sheppard added. “He put his nose to the grindstone. He is finally having a very good year. He may not have won as many races as he should have. He is probably one of the toughest cars night in and night out. You guys saw how tough he was at Fulton (Outlaw 200). He was good here again. He’s been good on tour. He’s really turned the corner. He’s becoming one of the main threats on the tour now.”
It was Sheppard’s 39th win of the 2017 season. He’s been the dominant car since a hiccup in month of July. He’s won 11 series races, nearly all of them coming in the second half of the season.
“So far it has been our year,” he said. “We sit here and talk about the wins we’ve had this year, if you look back at history, for whatever reason, guys that have killer years end up winning this race. I don’t know why. Whatever happens from here on out the rest of the season I don’t even know if it really matters to me. We’ve won 39 races and Syracuse (Oswego), who cares whatever else happens.”
The win also propelled back atop the points standings with the Super DIRTcar Series as current point leader Billy Decker had a terrible day. He was involved in multiple incidents during the 200.
“I guess it’s good to be back on top after three or four months here, but we got three races coming up that are probably just as of a wild cards as this race,” he said. “Brockville you never what you are going to get, even charlotte is the same way with tire wear and qualifying is real important down there. We definitely have three wild cards coming up. Anything can happen. On those 150 points deal, there is so much a big swing one direction or the other so a little misfortune one way or the other it can flip flop three more times before the end of the year.”