By CHRIS MARQUART
As it has played out so many times before, the two most decorated Modified drivers of the last decade were poised for yet another showdown; a repeat in reverse fashion from a month ago when Stewart Friesen held off Matt Sheppard in the final laps at Georgetown in the SSTS South Series opener in Delaware.
Sunday’s Hard Clay Open at Orange County Fair Speedway had all the makings of an instant classic. Hard Charging Stewart Friesen had moved from 20th to second in 48 laps, and a late caution period put his No. 44F on the back bumper of Sheppard.
But, it was an anticlimactic finish. There was no door rubbing. There was no theatrics or fireworks. Matt Sheppard was dominant all day, and continued through those final circuits, amassing a half-straightaway lead in the final two laps to record his first career Middletown win.
“Matt was super fast all day, obviously,” Friesen said. “Thought we might have something on that restart and I must have sealed a tire up there and didn’t get going.
“Felt like we had a flat, and we got the white and it kind of gripped up again.”
But it was too late, and the advantage built up was insurmountable in the final turns.
“I don’t know if we used the tires up but I don’t think it mattered. I think he definitely had the best car today,” Friesen said.
Sheppard was sixth by lap five, and after back-to-back cautions on lap seven, Sheppard blasted to third. He took second on lap 15, passing Anthony Perrego. A lap later, Sheppard took over the point from Danny Varin and checked out.
Meanwhile, Friesen climbed to 11th by lap five, and was threatening the top five by lap 15. On lap 20, Friesen was scored fifth. He hung around the back of the top five at that juncture as the 24-lap stint was the longest green flag run of the afternoon.
That ended on lap 31, with the dawn of the second to last caution period. On the restart, Friesen powered to third and endeavored on a battle with Mat Williamson. He finally solved Williamson on lap 43, and set sail for the leader.
Danny Creeden and Danny Varin tangled off the fourth turn with two to go, setting the stage for the final showdown as the leaders saw the parallel flags.
On the restart, Sheppard took off, and Friesen could not keep pace. That late in the day, a hay-maker off the top groove was not going to make the cut, either.
“The top was pretty good and then that kind of went away. It got kind of marble-y up there,” said Friesen. “You had to pick a clean line and luckily our DKM car had enough forward bite to get by everybody but one.”
As good as the Halmar No. 44 was, the question begs to be asked about what could have been.
Friesen had a position in the feature secured during the heat race, but while going for a little more bonus money, Friesen spun. He didn’t recover enough ground to crack the top three and the attached qualifying spot and had to run one of the three consolation events. There, he won, yet it still mired him deep in the feature field a long way from the leaders.
“I screwed up in the heat race and spun out. Tried too hard,” said Friesen. “Was going for the bonus money that was up for grabs and put ourselves behind the eight ball and had to battle back.”
The good news is fortune may yet be turning on the small-block program. Ample research and testing has gone into the car, and the runner-up showing helps serve as a healing salve from the broken ring gear suffered in Georgetown’s small-block race last month.
“We have some work to do,” said Friesen. “We had some bad luck with the red car. We had some speed but bad luck in the small-block race at Georgetown and broke a ring gear.
“We did a lot of homework on stuff over the winter and it’s starting to pay off. That’s cool. We’re finding some stuff, Kevin Bates and DKM and everyone working together, it’s pretty cool.”
With the second place effort, and a thrilling one to watch as Friesen marched his way to it, Friesen now has five top fives in eight starts, including two wins in 2019.
“We salvaged something. My screw up got us behind the eight ball early, but thanks to my guys for standing behind me,” he said. “It was good, starting 20th on a challenging race track, if you had said we would get second out if I probably would have said you’re lying at the beginning of the race. It wasn’t awful.”