SYRACUSE, N.Y. — official release — DIRTcar photo — Matt Sheppard earned his first-ever pole position start in the prestigious Syracuse 200 during Thursday afternoon’s Big-Block Modified qualifying at the New York State Fairgrounds — but just barely.
The 32-year-old star from Waterloo, N.Y., topped time trials for Sunday’s prestigious $50,000-to-win event by the slimmest of margins, besting Brett Hearn of Sussex, N.J., by a mere two-thousandths of a second on the first day of competition at NAPA Auto Parts Super DIRT Week XLIII.
Sheppard steered his Heinke-Baldwin Racing Troyer car around the historic one-mile oval in a blistering 29.410 seconds, just better than the 29.412-second circuit that the 56-year-old Hearn turned with his Teo-Pro machine. Sheppard earned $1,000 for capturing the Pole Position Raceway Fast Time Award while Hearn collected $750 for grabbing the BACC-OFF Outside Pole Award.
“I cut a good lap,” said Sheppard, the 2009 winner of the Syracuse 200. “I didn’t know if it was gonna be good enough to stay there, though. I kind of figured that with basically all the heavy hitters behind me –— all the guys who were faster than me all afternoon — I didn’t think it would hold up.”
“But it did, so I guess it showed how good a lap it was.”
Sheppard sat behind the wheel of a fresh machine that helped him continue the momentum he carried into Super DIRT Week. He scored a $20,000 victory in last Saturday night’s Outlaw 200 at Fulton (N.Y.) Speedway and was triumphant in Wednesday night’s 358-Modified Series event at Weedsport (N.Y.) Speedway.
“It’s a brand new car, but it’s no different than this race car sitting right here that I’m gonna run at Brewerton tonight,” said Sheppard, who is making his first Super DIRT Week appearance with the HBR team. “It’s something we’ve been running all year. Just a little bit different tin — very little. We just went with something we know.”
“So far, so good,” he added with a smile. “I’ve been coming here for a while and never been on the pole, so I’m excited. The polesitter doesn’t always win this race, but hopefully we can change that this week.”
Sheppard did face a Moody Mile track surface that turned up much faster than it has in recent years. His sub-30-second qualifying effort marked just the second time in the last seven years that the Syracuse 200 fast-timer was in the 29-second bracket.
“It’s kind of a cross between the last couple years and the old Syracuse,” Sheppard said of the Fairgrounds’ clay. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens the rest of the week. I think it’ll either get faster or it’ll get slower — and I like it slower. It’s better race day like that. It’s fun to go fast on qualifying day, but I’d rather see it slow on race day.”
Hearn would also prefer the lap times to come back to earth before Sunday 200-mile test of man and machine.
“I hope something changes because it would be a better race if it slow downs,” said Hearn, who will be on the outside pole when he takes the Syracuse 200 green flag for the 37th time in search of his seventh career win. “That track today was a little more of a classic of what it used to be. It’s gotten away from that the last few years.”
“I think it has a lot more to do with either the clay they did or didn’t add and other factors, like if they dug it, the cinders in it … but it’s smooth, and it’s definitely got a fast lane on the bottom.”
It was an almost imperceptible bobble on the track that left Hearn trailing Sheppard in the final qualifying numbers.
“I thought that I lost some time into (turn) one,” said Hearn, who fell short of tying Billy Decker of Unadilla, N.Y., with a record seventh Syracuse 200 fast-time honor. “There’s a little bit of a patch of what looks like new clay there that was a little more slippery than the rest of the track. I got through it OK, but it kept me from getting back in the throttle as quick as I needed to.”
“If I lost any time at all — I mean, two one-thouasandths, you can’t even imagine that — that’s where it would be.”
Jimmy Phelps of Baldwinsville, N.Y., who is Sheppard’s teammate under the HBR banner, was a close third on the final speed chart with a lap of 29.435 seconds. He will start from inside the second row in Sunday’s 200.
Decker will start fourth after turning a lap of 29.466 seconds, while defending Syracuse 200 champion Billy Dunn of Watertown, N.Y. (29.493 seconds) and Duane Howard of Oley, Pa. (29.545 seconds) will share the third row after timing fifth and sixth, respectively, to complete the group of drivers locked into Sunday’s finale.
The balance of the Syracuse 200 field will be determined with the results of Triple 20-lap heat races that are part of Friday evening’s Camping World Friday Night Lights program. The card of heat races, which also includes Twin 20s for the 358-Modifieds and Triple 10s for the Sportsman-Modifieds, is scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m.
Syracuse 200 Qualifying Results
|28||115||Kenny Tremont Jr.||30.571|
|38||M40||Mark Forte Jr||30.973|
|39||62||Tom Sears Jr.||31.004|
|42||165||Rex King Jr.||31.228|
|66||77H||Bobby Hamm Jr.||33.982|