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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 2016 season got off to a bumpy start for dirt modified ace Matt Sheppard, who lost his ride with team owner Al Heinke in January just days before his wedding in Mexico.
In the days and weeks that followed Sheppard scrambled to put together his own team, acquiring race cars and equipment that he hoped would allow him to compete at the same level that fans and himself are accustomed to.
Fast forward to Sept. 4 and Sheppard was celebrating his second-straight Utica-Rome Speedway championship and as a result now owns a pair of NASCAR track championships at the Vernon, New York, speedplant.
“I was getting ready to head to Mexico to get married and found out that I didn’t have a car to drive,” Sheppard recalled. “We put this deal together this winter. It was really all about putting the right pieces together. All the right parts and pieces, crew members, personnel, etc. I think we did a really darn good job of it.”
It was once again an incredible year for Sheppard, who in addition to the Utica-Rome championship scored a non-NASCAR dirt series championship.
Sheppard registered a total of four NASCAR sanctioned victories at Utica-Rome this year, along with three additional victories at the half-mile clay oval that came in non-NASCAR sanctioned events.
“We had a really good year there. We were consistent, up front and won some races. The biggest thing that hurt us up there was Mother Nature. I think they had about 10 rainouts. That definitely hurt. It was a short season, but it was a good season for us,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard’s memory was correct, Utica-Rome lost 10 NASCAR-sanctioned weekends to rain this year. He said were it not for those lost races, he thinks he could have challenged for his first NASCAR Whelen All-American Series New York championship.
Sheppard finished a distant 17th in the New York state standings while Jimmy Zacharias collected his second-straight state crown.
“We’d have been close in New York State. That would have been a nice one to win,” Sheppard said. “It’s tough when you only get one night a week to run and it decided it wanted to rain almost every Sunday. It was just tough for us.”
The championship this year at Utica-Rome is Sheppard’s third at the New York venue, two of which have come under NASCAR sanctioning. Sheppard admits he’s not sure what it is about Utica-Rome that suits his driving style, but for some reason success there just keeps finding him.
“You know, I don’t know. I’ve just taken a liking to the place. My cars run well there. It’s racy. I really don’t know what it is, but I enjoy racing there,” Sheppard said.
With another successful year in the books, Sheppard is now turning his attention to 2017. He hopes to take his program to new heights next year as he chases yet another championship at Utica-Rome.
“This was a really special year for us. But you know, we’re not going to stop. We’re going to go to work this winter. We want to beat everything we did this year next year,” Sheppard said. “I’ve had a lot of years where I said there is no way we could do any better than this and somehow come out and manage to do better. That’s what we’re going to work for, for next year.”
Established in 1982, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is NASCAR’s national championship program for weekly short track auto racing.
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.