An ordinary driver would likely carry a hefty dose of anxiety into a season-ending race weekend while holding a minuscule points lead in their division’s championship battle.
Matt Sheppard, however, is no ordinary driver.
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A seven-time Super DIRTcar Series champion seeking an unprecedented fifth consecutive title on the Northeast’s premier big-block modified tour, Sheppard of Waterloo, N.Y., enters the Nov. 7-9 Can-Am World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in Concord, N.C., sitting atop the circuit’s points standings by a mere six markers over Mat Williamson of St. Catharines, Ontario. That’s a statistical dead heat with just the big-block modified portion of the World Finals — two 40-lap feature paying $8,000 to win — remaining on the SDS’s 2019 schedule, but the 37-year-old Sheppard doesn’t seem the least bit fazed to have no margin for error with so much on the line.
For Sheppard — big-block modified racing’s unquestioned Driver of the 2010s on the strength of his SDS points crowns in 2010-12 and 2015-18 — racing for a championship in front of the 4/10-mile Charlotte oval’s massive World Finals crowd has simply become old hat.
“I’ve been down there ahead (in points) by a lot, ahead by a little, behind by a lot, behind by a little,” Sheppard said just days before the Thursday-night qualifying program that kicks off the World Finals weekend. “I’ve gone there behind and come out ahead, and I’ve gone down there ahead and come out behind.
“So, I mean, I’ve been in this situation before. I’ve pretty much been in every situation there is to be in. I think literally every year but one that we’ve raced down there (the big-block modified SDS joined the World of Outlaws Nos Energy Sprint Cars and World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series on the World Finals lineup in 2010) the points have been up for grabs going.”
Sheppard paused. He considered how he’s been in championship contention at the World Finals on an almost annual basis this decade and then said of this weekend’s events, “It’s just another year at Charlotte.”
It’s also been another spectacular campaign for Sheppard, a second-generation racer who had the look of a future big-block modified superstar from the moment he launched his driving career in 1999 as a fresh-faced 16-year-old. He has won 36 features — including a SDS-leading eight points races — at 15 different tracks in five states and two Canadian provinces, continuing his amazing decade-long assault on victory lane. He’s averaging 29 wins per season since 2009, when he captured 21 features to begin his current streak of 10 consecutive seasons with at least 20 triumphs.
Sheppard’s success this season has extended away from the DIRTcar Northeast circuit as well. On Nov. 2 at Georgetown (Del.) Speedway he clinched the Short Track Super Series’s Velocita-USA South Region title, completing a sweep of the STSS Halmar International North Region and the STSS-affiliated American Racer Cup to earn a $25,000 cash bonus from Insinger Performance. With the bonus, Sheppard’s take as the STSS’s “grand champion” was worth $58,500, making his ’19 season already comparable to his career-high 41-win campaign in 2017 with the $40,000 Super DIRTcar Series title still to be decided.
“I never thought we’d have a year as good as 2017, but we’re right there with it this year,” Sheppard said. “Even if we don’t win (the SDS championship), we’re still right there with (’17). We haven’t won quite as many races as ’17, but I think I’ve won a lot more $10,000-to-win shows, bigger-paying shows, and we run second at Eastern States (the 200-lapper on Oct. 27 at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, N.Y.), second at (New York’s) Fonda (200). We were in the hunt for a solid finish at (New York’s) Oswego (the Oct. 13 Billy Whittaker Cars 200 that closed NAPA Super DIRT Week) too; we weren’t gonna win, but we were good. Even the nights we haven’t won, we’ve been pretty darn solid.”
Nov. 7-9 | 3pm ET
Sheppard is proud of his standout performance this season, which has arguably been the most ambitious he’s attempted with his own equipment. He’s been fielding his own team in 2016 but, until this year, had accented his schedule by entering many non-DIRTcar events in other rides.
“It’s been a good year, but it’s been a tough year,” said Sheppard, who has made more than 80 overall starts this season. “We’ve run the DIRT(car) series, the (STSS) series, the weekly stuff, all out of one shop. Not multiple cars, multiple teams. Everything’s come out of our truck and trailer and my shop.”
And Sheppard has done all his racing without employing a single full-time mechanic.
“I got some guys that help me when they can, some night times and weekends,” Sheppard said. “I’ve got a local kid that will come over some days. (Crew chief) Randy (Kisacky) comes over a few nights a week after work. But I’m the only full-timer, so it’s been a lot of work.”
Yet another Super DIRTcar Series championship would be the perfect cherry on top of Sheppard’s spectacular season. An eighth career title would tie him with Brett Hearn of Vernon, N.J., for the most SDS championships in the history of the long-running big-block modified tour.
Sheppard knows what he has to do to get the job done at Charlotte. With the 29-year-old Williamson breathing down his neck, he just has to “run the best we can.”
“It’s the same thing — you just gotta go out and go as hard as you can right from the get-go,” Sheppard said. “Obviously, qualifying is so important down there. You don’t want to have to come from the rear (in the features); the track’s just so fast that everybody’s fast down there, and that makes it tough. It’s not that you can’t pass cars, but you don’t want to have to rely on having to pass 15 or 20 cars in 40 laps. That’s tough sledding. The races are also shorter than what we’re used to.
“And qualifying points are so important. There’s 5 points for fast time, 5 points for winning the heat, so when we’re that close every point counts.”
If there’s one aspect of the World Finals championship showdown where Sheppard has an advantage over Williamson, it’s certainly experience. Williamson has elevated himself to big-block modified star status this season with several monumental victories — most notably Oswego’s $50,000 Billy Whittaker Cars 200 and Aug. 18’s $100,000 Centennial Weekend finale at Orange County — but he’s never been in contention for the Super DIRTcar Series title on Charlotte’s big stage.
“He’s probably got a little more pressure than we do,” Sheppard said of Williamson, who grabbed the SDS points lead with his Oswego triumph but than saw Sheppard win the following week’s SDS feature at Brockville Ontario Speedway to regain command heading to Charlotte. “He’s never been in (the championship battle at Charlotte), and we’ve probably been in it probably 10 times.”
Nov. 7-9 | 3pm ET
Sheppard expects to face a serious challenge from Williamson, who outran Sheppard to win a World Finals feature in 2017.
“He’s obviously having a really good year, a breakout year,” Sheppard said. “He’s gonna be tough down there. He’s got a really good team, he’s a really good driver. He’s won down there, had some success. He’s obviously running really good, but the strange thing is, as close as we are in points, I actually don’t really remember racing with him all that much all year long. I don’t know if his good nights were my bad nights, or my bad good nights were his bad nights, but we haven’t really had many battles this year.”
Sheppard, who, like Williamson, runs Bicknell Race Cars (Williamson’s father, Randy, is a principle at the St. Catharines, Ont., chassis manufacturer), has known Williamson for years. He won’t, however, try to use his championship pedigree to intimidate the younger, upstart driver at Charlotte.
“I don’t play mind games,” said Sheppard, who has three career World Finals victories (two in ’16, one in ’17). “I just go there to race. I’m too old and too tired for that nonsense.”
The driver known as Super Matt just plans to follow the path that has led him to SDS championship celebrations seven times in the last nine years.
“It was a lot more nerve-racking for me back then than it is now,” Sheppard said of facing a tight points race. “You get to this point in your career and you just take what comes, and what doesn’t come, you let go, and you keep on trucking. You can’t lose any sleep over missed opportunities. I think he’ll learn the same thing,” he added, referring to Williamson. “He’s got a lot of years to come, and win, lose or draw, he’ll be in this position again, there’s no doubt about it.”