Matt Sheppard won the Billy Whittaker 200 in a thrilling display of perseverance on Sunday at Oswego (NY) Speedway.
While Sheppard secured the pole on Thursday to start at the top of the $50,000 feature, it was a last-lap pass that won him the race. In between Thursday and Sunday, he took two visits to Victory Lane, winning one of the Big-Block Modified triple 30s on Friday and the 358 Modified Great Outdoors RV 150 on Saturday.
Sheppard started the 200-lap feature strong, pulling out to the lead and running it uncontested for the first quarter. As 41 cars continued to put lay rubber on the track, the conditions changed.
“The track did a 180,” Sheppard said. “All of a sudden a fresh-tire race instead of a track-position race.”
Cars that we're running heavier compound tires started lifting the rubber back off the track to expose a fresh surface. Many drivers decided to use this to their advantage and pitted to put on the softer 400 compound tires.
“Around the lap 100 mark, many guys came in and put on 400 compound tires,” third-place finisher Larry Wight said. “You used to see it at Rolling Wheels Speedway where the hard tires peels the rubber off the track. Then you have to come back in and put the soft tire back on, and then you can run around again.”
With the track and tire change, racers found themselves in a whole new race. At lap 105, Peter Britten capitalized on the new conditions and took the lead after starting 25th.
Sheppard, who was so dominant for the first quarter of the race, found himself running in the back of the top 10. Now in a precarious situation, Sheppard had to count on strategy to make another run at the lead. The driver ended up pitting on lap 161 for fresh tires, giving him 39 laps to attempt to fly from 20th to first.
“At that point, we were kind of fading back through the field and decided our only option to try to win this thing was to wait until lap 150 to 160 to try and put fresh rubber and try to charge to the front,” Sheppard said.
Ten laps later, Sheppard was up to ninth when a red flag was brought out for Carey Terrance. With less than 30 to go, Sheppard reentered the top five. As he made his way to the front, Wight was battling Britten hard for the lead.
A final caution came out on lap 20 for Billy Decker, opening the door for his points lead competitor Sheppard. On the restart, Sheppard made it around five-time winner of the event Stewart Friesen and had the leaders in his crosshairs.
Lapped traffic came into play as it slowed Britten, allowing Wight and Sheppard to stay on his bumper in the final laps.
The final five laps saw three different leaders, as the top spot was swapped between Britten, Wight, and Sheppard. With three laps to go, Wight final muscled his way by to lead half a lap before Britten regained his position. When Britten took the lead, Sheppard followed and Wight started to fade back slightly.
A second battle with a lapped car is what ultimately cost Britten the win. As the leader battled to get around Kenny Tremont, Britten was simultaneously trying to block Sheppard on the bottom.
“I knew I probably couldn’t drive around him in turns three and four and my only shot would be in turns one and two, and I got a pretty clean run in there and the car stuck," Sheppard said. "I got enough momentum to drive around the outside of him and cleared him on the backstretch.”
Sheppard got a run off the high side of corners one and two on the final lap to pull himself side by side with the leader. The race was decided by a backstretch drag race between the two drivers.
”What an unbelievable feeling getting into turn three," Sheppard said. "I kept telling myself, 'Don’t mess this up. Let’s get this back to the checkered flag.'”
After leading for the majority of the final 100 laps, Britten was heartbroken in second.
“There’s really no way to describe it but heartbreaking,” Britten said. “Congrats to Matt Sheppard. He’s an amazing driver and an amazing talent. Their whole team is fantastic, obviously a deserving effort, but I feel our team really would have been deserving efforts too.”
Stewart Friesen and Jimmy Phelps completed the top five.