Sheppard Adds NASCAR Title To Résumé, Dirt Mod Standout Takes Home Utica-Rome Championship
By Jason Cunningham, NASCAR January 4, 2016 - 2:00pm...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Not much is left to accomplish for a winner of 18 track championships, but Matt Sheppard was able to add a new line to his dirt modified résumé this year with the Utica-Rome Speedway title.
The latest of those 18 marked Sheppard’s first career NASCAR track championship.
Utica-Rome rejoined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series in 2014, which provided the Waterloo, New York, wheelman a new opportunity. After a close runner-up finish that season, the veteran Sheppard broke through in 2015.
“The NASCAR sanctioning at Utica-Rome is great, I really enjoy it,” Sheppard said. “It’s kind of unfortunate that Utica-Rome is the only NASCAR track around that I can race at, so it limits the number of races that I can run for national points, but what they’re doing there I think is great.”
Racing more Whelen All-American Series-sanctioned races is a genuine desire. Sheppard yearns to chase as many titles as his schedule will allow. In addition to his Utica-Rome crown, the 33-year-old took down two other track championships and a touring series title in 2015.
As it was, Sheppard was able to register eight wins, 15 top fives and 17 top 10s in 18 NASCAR points features at the historic half-mile dirt oval in Vernon, New York. He finished as the runner-up in the Empire State standings to Jimmy Zacharias and 19th nationally.
He picked up another win in three additional non-NASCAR races at Utica-Rome to beat Larry Wight 986-907 in the Stampede Steakhouse Modified division and end the five-year championship run of Stewart Friesen.
The competition with Friesen has become extremely close in recent seasons. Sheppard, who claimed his first and only other Utica-Rome title in 2002, finished second to Friesen in each of the two previous years.
“It’s been real tight competition,” Sheppard said. “I believe two years ago we were actually tied for points going into the last night of the season and because of a schedule conflict I could not attend, and last year we were only separated by a few points.”
Sheppard got his start in racing in 1990 in go-karts when his father gave up his own racing career to pass the torch. Sheppard moved to full-bodied cars in 1999 and found immediate success with six combined feature wins that season.
Racing throughout the Finger Lakes region and upstate New York, Sheppard has compiled quite a career for himself in an area well known for its dirt racing standouts.
“I come from an area that’s rich in dirt modified racing,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been around dirt modified racing my whole life in one form or another.”
Sheppard ran full-time at Utica-Rome in the early 2000s, then competed sporadically there until he returned to weekly competition in 2013. With his performance this season, Sheppard ranks 10th on the all-time list with 25 wins at the track that claims NASCAR Hall of Famers Richie Evans and Jerry Cook among its deep history of competitors.
En route to his first NASCAR crown, Sheppard received help with his No. 9 FX Caprara Chevrolet modified from team members Anthony Salerno, Randy Kisacky, Jamie Vechy, Rick Beckman and Dan Camara. Associate sponsorship was provided by Integra Racing Shocks, Camara Slate and Mohawk Northeast.
“We had a very good year,” Sheppard said. “We won a lot of races and a lot of championships. The whole season in general was tremendous.”
With the 2015 awards season behind him, Sheppard is wholly focused on the coming season which will provide a new set of challenges. He and car owner Al Heinke parted ways following the four championships they earned together in 2015, and now Sheppard has founded his own operation to move forward with after racing for other teams throughout his career.
“There’s going to be some huge challenges,” Sheppard said. “Starting your own team basically from scratch is a pretty tall order. Thankfully I have a lot of great friends, supporters and sponsors that are stepping up. The program is coming together nicely. We’re definitely not 100-percent yet, we’re still looking for some help in just about any department we can find it, but I’m definitely looking forward to the season.”
Established in 1982, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is NASCAR’s national championship program for weekly short track auto racing. In all, 57 paved and dirt tracks throughout the United States and Canada participated in 2015.
Connecticut-based Whelen Engineering is the series’ title sponsor. Whelen Engineering is a leading manufacturer of automotive, aviation, industrial and emergency vehicle lighting. NASCAR tracks and pace cars are among the many showcases for Whelen products.