By MIKE MALLETT
Matt Sheppard summed up the win on Saturday night at Port Royal Speedway in the Speed Showcase 75 simply by saying, “When it’s going your way, it’s going your way.”
As of late, that is an understatement.
For the fifth consecutive big money race, Sheppard found a way. In this one he took a roundabout method to get there, which included using all but a half lap of the 75-lap distance, but he got there and was able to pocket another $50,000.
“It’s been luck, it’s been a lot of things, but we had bad luck tonight and got a flat tire and had to go to the back in a 75 lapper and still made it though the field,” said Sheppard. “So I don’t know. It’s not even the same car, different car and different engine. When it’s going your way, it’s going your way. I’ve been saying that for the last month and it’s still going my way.”
Things started out dicey for Sheppard after rolling off from 11th. He hung in the top 10 until contact with another driver on lap 15 sent him to the infield for a new right rear American Racer. That flat may have been the difference maker. As everyone else struggled to find grip late in the race, Sheppard was able to maneuver his No. 9s Bicknell all over the track.
“I did not need that,” said Sheppard when asked about the flat. “This is a South series race and it’s an Elite Series race. It’s a big race and we want to win it, but we just need to run good, finish good and the next thing you know we get a flat tire and we’re riding back there in 34th or whatever. I’m thinking this is gonna be a long day.”
It was a long day, but one that paid off with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sheppard’s march forward after restarting outside the top 30 didn’t happen all at once. It took time. He picked up a spot here and there, but things didn’t get rolling until late in the race when he was able to move to the top of the speedway with everyone else glued to the bottom. His tire was just a little fresher than everyone else. With that, and cautions falling when he needed them to, Sheppard was able to run down Friesen and pass him on the final lap.
“For the longest time I didn’t even dream we were even in contention of getting up through and winning this thing,” said Sheppard. “I was praying for a top 10. You try and salvage some points. It’s like everybody else got rolling that bottom and married to that bottom and that opened up the top lane for me. For whatever reason, my car was better up there than it was on the bottom. I got up there and let it rip and freewheel.
“It just went our way. We got cautions when we needed them there at the end. We’d pick off a few cars, get a yellow, pick off a few more, get another yellow. I don’t know why everybody was in such a hurry to get to the bottom and that gave me clear sailing. That was the difference I guess.”
Sheppard’s pass came in that preferred high groove on the final lap at the exit of the second corner. He went high, hit the cushion at the midpoint of the corner and rode the wall all the way to the backstretch allowing him to clear Friesen for the lead.
“I think the biggest difference for me is I kind of switched up my line,” said Sheppard. “I was getting a really good run for the longest time bouncing off the cushion and driving back across the track. At the end, I just wasn’t getting the run I needed anymore. I don’t know if it was by accident or not, but I ended up following the cushion all the way around the corner and I thought that was faster. I gained some ground and that was the difference. I did that the last couple laps and that was definitely the way to go.”
The win was Sheppard’s first Speed Showcase victory at Port Royal Speedway to go along with his first Fonda 200 win a month earlier.
“I didn’t think we would do them all in the same year,” said Sheppard discussing the teams current hot streak. “It’s just crazy. To get the first Fonda 200 and then my first Outlaw 200 in a long time, to get another one in Oswego and another one in the 358 race and then get the first one here, I mean it’s insane. I don’t know what to say about this, it’s literally insane.”
Dejected Friesen Settles for Second
Stewart Friesen has had his fair share of tough nights, especially in 2022. Saturday night was another tough pill to swallow for the Sprakers, N.Y., driver. He drove from deep in the field to the lead in dominant fashion before he led a majority of the race only to have Sheppard steal away the victory on the final lap.
“I’m proud of this whole Halmar team,” said Friesen. “We just ran out of tires. Not pitting just burned us out of a chance to win.”
The track didn’t completely lock down, but Friesen had limited tire left at the end to be able to compete with Sheppard. Once he saw Sheppard next to him on the restart with two to go, he knew it was over.
“It kind of rubbered, but it wasn’t totally locked down,” said Friesen. “I couldn’t be on the top anymore. My tires were gone. The only shot I had left was to keep it on the bottom. I knew he got tires so I knew we were screwed at that point.”