CONCORD, N.C. — Matt Sheppard will have to take a different path to the Super DIRTcar Series Big-Block Modified championship when he returns to The Dirt Track at Charlotte for this weekend’s fifth annual Lowes Foods World of Outlaws World Finals presented by Tom’s Snacks, Coca-Cola and Nature’s Own.
One year ago the talented young star from Waterloo, N.Y., entered the open-wheel division’s inaugural World Finals appearance holding a robust 74-point lead in the tour standings and secured his first title with only a modicum of drama.
The story has flipped this year, however, as Sheppard faces a 53-point deficit in his bid to repeat.
This is a position that Sheppard, 29, didn’t expect to find himself in for the season-ending Super DIRTcar Series action during the World Finals, a spectacular tripleheader weekend that also includes the World of Outlaws Sprint Car and Late Model series. He boasted a 46-point lead over Billy Decker of Unadilla, N.Y., entering the SEF Small Engines Fuels 200 presented by Ferris & Snapper on Oct. 9 at the one-mile New York State Fairgrounds, but Sheppard’s 29th-place finish after losing a wheel and Decker’s solid runner-up outing flipped the script.
Sheppard was unable to cut into Decker’s points edge in the Eastern States 200 on Oct. 23 at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, N.Y., but his fourth-place finish versus Decker’s third-place run kept the Super DIRTcar Series crown in play for the pair of 40-lap, $6,000-to-win features that comprise the Big-Block Modified portion of the World Finals.
“When you’re behind in the championship (battle) there’s really nothing you can do other than try to win the races,” Sheppard said of his strategy for the deciding events at The Dirt Track. “We dodged a major bullet (at Orange County) with all the problems we had (he managed to finish fourth despite starting 35th in the 200-lapper), so at least we’re going to Charlotte close enough to put some pressure on Billy.
“But Billy’s good on equipment and really doesn’t drop out of many races, so we just have to race to win and whatever happens, happens.”
Sheppard would certainly rather sit in Decker’s position when he unloads for the World Finals, which for the Big-Block Modifieds begin with two rounds of heat races during Kellogg’s Qualifying Night Nov. 3. Holding the catbird’s seat worked out well for him last year since he needed that advantage after a flat tire knocked him out of the first feature, which was run on Saturday afternoon following a rain-out of Friday night’s program, as he held second place with just three laps to go.
With Sheppard finishing 14th in the World Finals matinee while his closest pursuer in the standings, Jimmy Phelps of Baldwinsville, N.Y., pulled off a last-lap win, Sheppard’s advantage was down to 30 points entering the regularly-scheduled nightcap. Sheppard calmly drove his Jeff Brownell Sr.-owned Bicknell car to a second-place finish under the lights, however, and beat Phelps, who finished a quiet 10th, by 59 points for the crown.
“Last year was different since we came into the weekend with a little bit of a cushion,” said Sheppard. “We probably should’ve won the race that they ran Saturday afternoon but we blew a tire. That race, with how much rubber the track took (on a sun-splashed day), was a complete wild-card, but we survived it and then came back and had a good enough run that night to pick up the title.”
It was a memorable Super DIRTcar Series championship breakthrough for Sheppard, a second-generation racer who has been a success at every level of DIRTcar Northeast’s open-wheel ranks (Sportsman, 358-Modified, Big-Blocks). He had the opportunity to celebrate his season alongside World of Outlaws champions Jason Meyers (Sprints) and Josh Richards (Late Models) in front of a standing-room-only crowd and a national television audience on the Speed cable network.
“Winning my first title on live TV was pretty special,” said Sheppard, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology who currently makes his living driving Big-Block Modifieds. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Back at the scene of his great triumph with the same JB Motorsports team for this year’s World Finals, Sheppard is primed to make a push for another post-race party. He knows that Decker can clinch his third career overall DIRTcar Big-Block Modified championship by placing at least sixth in both features, so he hopes to put as much pressure on the 46-year-old veteran as he can.
“I’m excited for Charlotte,” said Sheppard, who leads the 2011 Super DIRTcar Series in wins (four) but is second to Decker in top-five finishes (nine to Decker’s 12) and tied with Decker in top-10s (12 each). “It’s a nice track and it’s a fun place to race at. They have a nice thing going down there with all three big divisions. They get huge crowds for the thing and the pits are always packed.
“We’ve run pretty well there in the past so we’ll probably just use a similar set up to last year and hopefully we’ll be in victory lane from there.”
Sheppard definitely has some history to race for in the World Finals. Another overall DIRTcar Big-Block Modified championship would make him just the fifth driver in history to win back-to-back overall titles, joining a group of Big-Block immortals that features Alan Johnson (2002-2003), Bob McCreadie (1994-95), Jack Johnson (1984-85, 1987-88) and Will Cagle (1978-79).