By MIKE MALLETT
BARBERVILLE, FL – Thursday night’s 30-lap Modified DIRTcar Nationals main-event at Volusia Speedway Park came down to a battle between two of the best Super DIRTcar Series drivers in the Northeast. Matt Sheppard and Larry Wight duked it out for the final 10 laps of the feature race with Sheppard coming out on top at the checkered flag.
Sheppard’s win came behind the wheel of his self-owned No. 9s Bicknell. The Waterloo, N.Y., driver split with Heinke-Baldwin Racing over the winter after a successful 2015 that saw him win the series title. This forced Sheppard to go in a different direction this year. Sheppard chose to start his own team and it quickly paid dividends as he marched to his seventh career DIRTcar Nationals triumph.
“This is unreal,” said Sheppard. “It was such a crazy off-season for us; building this team in such a short period of time. We can say I’m going out on my own but not really. I got a ton of great people that have stepped up to help out. Everything really came together. The crew has been busting their butt all night on this car. We had trouble in qualifying, we had trouble in the heat race and they never gave up. Man two races in and we are sitting in Victory Lane already that is awesome.”
Wight redrew the pole and was flanked for the start by opening night winner Tim Fuller. Wight surged to the lead at the start before caution slowed the pace after only one lap. Billy VanInwegen caught the inner guardrail and shot up the bank collecting several cars in turns three and four. Everyone was able to continue except VanInwegen as his night came to an end with front end damage.
The field restarted with Wight at the point but he quickly lost two positions as both Labauch and Fuller shot by in turns one and two. Laubach raced to the lead with Fuller looking to his outside as they battled down the backstretch. Laubach would come out on top as the race leader.
Laubach set a torrid pace from this point as Fuller did everything in his power to remain in the thick of things at the front of the field. Laubach continued to distance himself with Fuller searching around as the high-line that propelled him to victory wasn’t as strong as it was on Wednesday night.
Action began picking up as the race reached the halfway point. Laubach caught the tail of the field which impeded his progress as he had to work through traffic. The rest of the field took advantage and closed the gap. Laubach led with Fuller second while Wight and Sheppard swapped the third position lap after lap.
With just eight circuits left, Sheppard and Wight pounced on Laubach and Fuller. Fuller faded while Laubach got boxed in by a slower car on the bottom allowing Sheppard to roll the middle and Wight to use the extreme outside. The three drivers waged a fierce battle for the lead until Sheppard finally edged in front on lap 24.
“He (Laubach) got jammed up and I was able to roll around the outside of him there,” he said. “The key thing was I was able to go around the lapped car into one and then I got it turned fast enough to get down to the bottom to get that good run off of one and down the backstretch. That’s what sealed the deal for us.”
Even though Sheppard was able to wrestle the lead from Laubach he still had to hold off Wight. Wight began slamming the cushion in his LJL Racing Teo Pro Car. This allowed him to stay within striking distance of Sheppard. Sheppard altered his line just slightly to find the bite off of turn two. This alteration provided him the opportunity to gain some breathing room as he worked through traffic quickly.
“It got pretty hectic out there,” Sheppard said. “I was pretty good on the bottom. I ran out of tear offs with about five or six to go. That was a little nerve wracking. I’m just so thankful to be able to hang on to win this for everybody.”
Sheppard scored the win over Wight by 1.2 seconds. Wight wheeled his No. 99L around the cushion but it wasn’t enough to pull off the upset victory in the closing laps.
“We’ve been doing a lot of testing down here,” Wight said. “We are trying to use it for all we can. I think tonight we had a really good car. It took me a little too long to find the top of one and two. We were in the middle of three and four. Right there at the end traffic got the best of me. Matt (Sheppard) was able to get down to the bottom and run away from me.”
Wight was hoping to add a Small Gator trophy to the Big Gator trophy he won at the conclusion of 2015. A second DIRTcar Nationals title is a possibility now that he has two top five finishes on the week. He’ll continue to search for a win in the final two nights of competition.
“This Gypsum Wholesalers car has been phenomenal,” Wight said. “To come down here and try and pick it up twice would be great. I can’t thank the crew enough.”
Laubach, a Modified standout in his own right from Hellertown, Pa., was able to hang on to the final spot on the podium. He was disappointed with how the race played out. He said he felt like the slower car may have cost him an opportunity for a DIRTcar Nationals win for the second year in a row.
“You want to win one,” said Labuach. “I didn’t think I was going to get the lead from those guys. Then I started pulling away from them and I was comfortable before I got caught up in the lapped traffic. That guy wouldn’t get out of my way. If I could have just got by him I think I could have held them off. That is part of it, I just wasn’t good enough to get by him so it is what it is.”
Stewart Friesen rallied late from his 10th starting spot to finish in fourth while Erick Rudolph came from seventh to complete the top five.
Laubach was the fastest car on the night in group qualifying with a lap of 17.817. Heat wins were secured by Laubach, Billy Pauch, Billy Dunn and Dave Rauscher. Peter Britten and Steve Bernard won their respective consolation events.
Racing returns Thursday night at Volusia Speedway Park for the 10th day of the DIRTcar Nationals. Gates open at 5 p.m. and racing begins at 7:30 p.m.
Follow the series on Twitter @SuperDIRTcar, or click www.SuperDIRTcarSeries.com.
DIRTcar Nationals Note
Tyler Dippel was fined $500 and placed on probation until the end of the 2016 Super DIRTcar Series season following an incident the previous night.
DIRTcar Nationals Statistical Report; Feb. 18, 2016; Volusia Speedway Park; Barberville, Fla.
A-Main (30 Laps) – 1. 9s-Matt Sheppard, 2. 99L-Larry Wight, 3. 7-Rick Laubach, 4. 44-Stewart Freisen, 5. 25R-Erick Rudolph, 6. 49-Billy Dunn, 7. 19-Tim Fuller, 8. 1-Billy Pauch, 9. 20-Brett Hearn, 10. 1T-Tyler Dippel, 11. 07-Tim Kerr, 12. 32c-Vic Coffey, 13. 21a-Pete Britten, 14. 54-Steve Bernard, 15. 14J-Alan Johnson, 16. 74-J.R Heffner, 17. 27J-Danny Johnson, 18. 5*-Tyler Siri, 19. 83-Brian Swartzlander, 20. 1G-Darwin Green, 21. 6m-Mat Williamson, 22. 323-Neal Williams, 23. 85-H.J. Bunting, 24. 48T-Dave Rauscher, 25. 28p-Eldon Payne, 26. 5-Billy VanInwegen
Last Chance Showdown 1 (10-laps – Top 3 Finishers Transer) – 1. 21a-Pete Britten, 2. 83-Brian Swartzlander, 3. 19m-Jessey Mueller, 4. 21k-Randy Chrysler, 5. 8-Rich Scagliotta, 6. 64-Daniel Nadeau, 7. 30-Jamie Mills
Last Chance Showdown 2 (10-laps – Top 3 Finishers Transer) – 1. 54-Steve Bernard, 2. 1G-Darwin Green, 3. 6m-Mat Williamson, 4. 14-C.G. Morey, 5. OBs-Jeremy Markle, 6. 29J-Chris Ostrowsky, 7. 29e-Erik Martin
Heat 1 (8 Laps – Top 5 finishers transfer to the A-feature) – 1. 7 Rick Laubach, 2. 99L Larry Wight, 3. 5* Tyler Siri, 4. 85 H.J. Bunting, 5. 5 Billy VanInwegen, 6. 19m Jessey Mueller, 7. 83 Brian Swartzlander, 8. 21k Randy Chrysler, 9. 64 Daniel Nadeau
Heat 2 (8 Laps – Top 5 finishers transfer to the A-feature) – 1. 1-Billy Pauch, 2. 19-Tim Fuller, 3. 44-Stewart Freisen, 4. 1T-Tyler Dippel, 5. 32c-Vic Coffey, 6. 21a-Pete Britten, 7. 30-Jamie Mills, 8. 8-Rich Scagliotta
Heat 3 (8 Laps – Top 5 finishers transfer to the A-feature) – 1. 49-Billy Dunn, 2. 20-Brett Hearn, 3. 27J-Danny Johnson, 4. 07-Tim Kerr, 5. 74-J.R Heffner, 6. 54-Steve Bernard, 7. 6m-Mat Williamson, 8. 29e-Erik Martin, 9. 28p-Eldon Payne
Heat 4 (8 Laps – Top 5 finishers transfer to the A-feature) – 1. 25R-Erick Rudolph, 2. 9s-Matt Sheppard, 3. 48T-Dave Rauscher, 4. 14J-Alan Johnson, 5. 323-Neal Williams, 6. 1G-Darwin Green, 7. OBs-Jeremy Markle, 8. 29J-Chris Ostrowsky, 9. 14-C.G. Morey
Qualifying Group 1 – 1. 7-Rick Laubach, 17.817; 2. 5*-Tyler Siri, 18.395; 3. 5-Billy VanInwegen, 18.404; 4. 99L-Larry Wight, 18.517; 5. 85-H.J. Bunting, 18.592; 6. 21k-Randy Chrysler, 18.803; 7. 83-Brian Swartzlander, 19.314; 8. 64-Daniel Nadeau, 20.156; 9. 19m-Jessey Mueller, 20.573
Qualifying Group 2 – 1. 1-Billy Pauch, 17.961; 2. 19-Tim Fuller, 18.075; 3. 1T-Tyler Dippel, 18.172; 4. 44-Stewart Freisen, 18.253; 5. 32c-Vic Coffey, 18.657; 6. 30-Jamie Mills, 18.694; 7. 21a-Pete Britten, 18.724; 8. 8-Rich Scagliotta, 18.993
Qualifying Group 3 – 1. 49-Billy Dunn, 18.080; 2. 20-Brett Hearn, 18.336; 3. 27J-Danny Johnson, 18.387; 4. 07-Tim Kerr, 18.527; 5. 74-J.R Heffner, 18.543; 6. 54-Steve Bernard, 18.553; 7. 28p-Eldon Payne, 18.583; 8. 6m-Mat Williamson, 18.663; 9. 29e-Erik Martin, 19.413
Qualifying Group 4 – 1. 25R-Erick Rudolph, 18.476; 2. 48T-Dave Rauscher, 18.539; 3. OBs-Jeremy Markle, 18.597; 4. 9s-Matt Sheppard, 18.606; 5. 1G-Darwin Green, 18.688; 6. 14J-Alan Johnson, 18.716; 7. 323-Neal Williams, 18.934; 8. 14-C.G. Morey, 19.094; 9. 29J-Chris Ostrowsky, 20.122; 10. X-Ed Kitchell, 24.126
The Super DIRTcar Series and DIRTcar Racing in the Northeast is brought to fans by many important sponsors and partners, including: Hoosier Racing Tire (Official Tire), VP Racing Fuels (Official Racing Fuel), Chevy Performance Parts and NAPA Auto Parts; in addition to contingency sponsors, including: ASI Race Wear, Bicknell Racing Products, Bilstein Shocks, Cometic Gasket, Comp Cams, Edelbrock, Fox Shocks, Intercomp, JE Pistons, JRI Shocks, KSE Racing Products, Mike’s Racing Heads, Motorsports Safety Systems, MSD, Mobil 1, Superflow Dynos and Wrisco Aluminum; along with manufacturer sponsors, including: Beyea Headers, Racing Electronics and TNT Rescue.