FONDA, N.Y. – 200 laps is a long time for a race, let alone a dirt race. Matt Sheppard needed all but 65 of those laps to take home his first career Fonda 200 victory, he joined the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Brett Hearn and Stewart Friesen as a winner in the event.
The 200-lap, $53,000-to-win event started out like any other long distance race for big block modifieds; take the picking while it’s good at the start and then settle in for the long haul. Sheppard started the event in 11th place after a redraw. Once Mike Mahaney took the lead around lap 30 from polesitter Stewart Friesen, Sheppard was already in the top five and just started biding his time until the halfway pitstop break where he ended up second on track.
However, Sheppard elected to go to the hot pits to change more than just a tire on his race car and gave up the second place he was in. The track had started to lock down and take rubber, which created one lane of racing and minimal passing.
The Fonda Speedway crew went to work, ripped the rubber up and packed the track back in. Sheppard and his competitors watched on.
“The track prep was the right thing. It was locked down the first 100 (laps),” Sheppard said. “It would have been an awful second hundred. I was just itching to see what we had and get going.”
Sheppard did just that. As the field resumed the race on lap 100, it was Billy Decker and Jessica Friesen pacing the field back to green with Marc Johnson and Mike Mahaney close behind. Sheppard restarted outside row six in the 12th position. Once the green flagged wave he wasted no time getting to the front. He took second place around lap 125 and when the caution flew on lap 133, he jetted around then race leader Marc Johnson for the lead on lap 135.
“We had a really good restart,” Sheppard said. “We got by some guys and that really set the tone for us. From there on out I was able to pick everybody off and get to the front.”
Once Sheppard got to the front, he knew he couldn’t stay content with his line. With the first 100 laps taking rubber, he figured it would be coming back so he went searching in an effort to stay ahead of everyone else behind him.
“Once I got to the lead I went searching,” Sheppard said. “I felt good on the high side but I knew the rubber would be coming down on the bottom at some point. I kept creeping down there to check it out.”
However, it was not smooth sailing for Sheppard out front. With 41 cars starting the 200, drivers are bound to be in lap traffic. At one point, Mike Mahaney closed the gap down to 0.385 seconds, as well as fourth place started Anthony Perrego also made it close on the lap 190 restart, however he held off Perrego and picked up the $53,000 check.
“I am sure they were there,” Sheppard said. “My car was better when I could let it free wheel and unfortunately the track changed to where you had to get down to the bottom and I just didn’t feel as comfortable down there. I knew if I just didn’t make any big mistakes on the rubber off of (turn) four. You are for sure counting down the laps and feeling the gremlins when the race is that big and I was just happy to see that checkered flag.”
There are very few tracks and events Matt Sheppard has not won in his career. He is a two-time Super DIRT Week winner, Fonda 200, Outlaw 200, Eastern States 200, the list goes on and on. However, Fonda has not always been his best track.
“It feels awesome to win this,” Sheppard said. “I don’t have a lot of experience in this race. But this is one we were gunning for. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy as this is not one of my better tracks. Everything went our way today and we made the right adjustments and now we are sitting in victory lane. I love it for this team and our guys. I am excited to have my face and name on the Fonda 200 trophy. It’s awesome.”