CONCORD, N.C. — Matt Sheppard has been in this position before.
The six-time Super DIRTcar Series big-block modified champion and driver of his own No. 9s entered the World of Outlaws World Finals presented by Can-Am with a 42-point lead over challenger Erick Rudolph as he chases his seventh series championship.
“I think we’ve got a good race car,” said Sheppard, who is attempting to capture his fourth straight series championship this weekend at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. “Anything can happen. That’s racing. We all know anything can happen.”
Sheppard, 36, has been in his share of title battles. In four of his championship-winning seasons Sheppard has claimed the series championship by less than 100 points. He’s also been on the losing side of one of those battles.
In 2014, Sheppard lost the Super DIRTcar Series championship to Billy Decker by six points to Billy Decker, so he knows what it feels like to lose a championship by the slimmest of margins.
“We’ve been in this situation a lot of times,” Sheppard said. “We’ve come out on top a bunch and we’ve come out second a few times. So I guess we’re not going to get too excited about it. Whatever is going to be is going to be.”
Sheppard, a three-time winner at the World Finals, has four points-paying victories this season with the Super DIRTcar Series in addition to 13 top-five finishes and 18 top-10 results. He kicked off the World Finals on Thursday night by winning his heat race for Friday’s program and finishing second in his Saturday night heat race.
Rudolph, on the other hand, has never been in this situation before. He hasn’t raced full time with the Super DIRTcar Series since 2014 when he drove for Mike Payne. Now driving his family-owned No. 25, Rudolph is in the thick of a title fight that he had no expectations of being in.
“Right now, he is at the top of his game and we’re doing pretty good too,” said Rudolph prior to Thursday’s heat races at the World Finals. “I think it’s going to take a lot as far as … I’m not sure we’re going to be able to out race him. If something were to happen to him, we’d be right there.”
Rudolph is the most recent Super DIRTcar Series winner, having triumphed Oct. 12 at Brockville Ontario Speedway. It was one of two victories for Rudolph with the series this year along with 15 top-five finishes and 19 top-10 runs, both of which are better than Sheppard.
“When we started this year we were hoping we could hang in the top-five area,” said the 26-year-old Rudolph. “With basically a brand-new team coming into this year, we had no idea we’d be in this kind of contention. Just to have a shot at the thing going into the World Finals here is amazing.”
Things didn’t go Rudolph’s way during opening night at the World Finals on Thursday. He finished fifth in his heat for the Friday program, but dropped out of his second heat of the night with a mechanical problem. As a result, he’ll have to race his way into Saturday’s field via the Last Chance Showdown.
Sheppard gained eight points on Rudolph during Thursday’s heat races and heads into Friday’s main event 50 points to the good.
However, as has been proven at the World Finals in the past, anything can and often does happen.