The final farewell to the New York State Fairgrounds concluded with a familiar result in Sunday’s Syracuse 200. Almost identical to the previous year’s pass, defending Super DIRT Week main event winner Stewart Friesen was able to set up and get around leader Matt Sheppard with only 26 laps to spare to win the 44th running of event in his No. 44 Big Block Modified.
“The guys were running the top and I wasn’t very good up there, so you kind of try to find a way to arc it into one on the bottom,” explained Friesen, who is now a four-time winner in the last five years. “That was kind of key. We found that lane down there and that’s where our car would go.”
Already celebrating his cousin James Michael Friesen’s first Sportsman Modified victory at the track earlier in the day, Stewart’s fortune came partially as a result to the bad luck of other drivers that took their turn at the lead.
Larry Wight set sail from his pole starting position early, but would not make it to lap 50 due to a drive shaft issue. New leader, 2013 race winner Billy Dunn ran into brake problems that forced him to come from the rear of the field and only up to a sixth place finish in the end.
Sheppard inherited the top spot as a result of pit strategy, a theme often seen in the 200 mile race. The Super DIRTcar Series point leader and his Heinke Baldwin Racing teammate Jimmy Phelps looked to be the cars to beat. Friesen was passing cars and catching them quick using his own on-track strategy. He overtook Phelps, and set his sights on Sheppard.
Suddenly Sheppard’s pace slowed after several previously masterful restarts and Friesen easily went around. It turned out that the No. 999, a scheme commemorating his father Stu’s past racing efforts, suffered an electrical issue that cause the engine to skip.
“The work these guys do, both him and Jimmy, they have tremendous racecars and race team and they are both really smart guys,” Friesen remarked. “It wasn’t a surprise when I saw them running one-two at the end. They calculated everything perfectly. I really do feel bad for Matt. He just had a problem and that can happen in this race, and we were lucky to not have any problems.”
Friesen’s win did not go entirely without its own obstacles. The team found an issue with the rear-end on Saturday and made the changes before the Sunday morning warmup. With that minor change aside, there was still work to do when the green flag flew.
“The rear wasn’t really a big deal, but right when we started our car was not very good,” Friesen recapped. “It was the first time we really ran with a full fuel load all week, so we learned some things and kind of had a game plan to pit and make some adjustments.”
Friesen continued that it would not have all been possible without the leadership from his own team.
“Eric Mack did a great job crew chiefing all week long. He kept everything organized and did a tremendous job. We were probably more organized than we’ve ever been so we were able to overcome stuff very quickly.”
Phelps held on to finish third, and despite celebrating a win the previous evening in a 358 Modified, was not satisfied with the result.
“Bittersweet that we were able to race for the win and had a great weekend,” Phelps concluded. “The sure fact that we don’t get another chance, that’s going to set in, and being that we didn’t win, that’s disappointing.”
Kenny Tremont Jr., a veteran who has been coming to the Moody Mile for decades, was Friesen’s closest competition in the remaining laps. The winner in 1999 made a couple bids to catch the leader, but would have to settle for second on this final day at the fairgrounds.
“It was typical Syracuse,” noted Tremont, who has 17 Dirt Modified wins to his credit in 2015. “You had to be careful and you had to know when to go hard; naturally, try to time your pit stops right. We spent a lot of time here through the years, had some good runs, and had some heartache too. It’s a lot of history. I’m sad to see it go.”
When all was said and done, the emotions really began to sink in for all after the checkered flag flew.
“For me personally, it really hit me when we finished and got over the scales,” Friesen said. “After they gave me the thumbs up and we got on the frontstretch it really hit me hard. It’s just unbelievable.
“Coming to Syracuse with my dad when I was six or seven years old; watching Brett Hearn win, I was like ‘man, I want to do something like that someday,’ never even thinking I would have a chance to be here. Just having the chance to compete here in this event at this facility is why I wanted to race.”
Both of the top-two finishers remain optimistic about the future of Super DIRT Week with its move to and investment in the Central New York Raceway Park, which is currently in development.
“We’ll find a new home and make history there I guess,” Tremont said. “I kind of more or less thought about it right when the news came out. Time moves on and we’ll all survive. Maybe there will be something better. Who knows.”
“It’s pretty sad that we are going to lose it, but we’ve lost big races before,” Friesen mentioned. “My dad and grandfather always told me good stories about Langhorne, Trenton, and the Pocono Race of Champions that were super cool. The sport went on. We’ll be fine and we’re looking forward to it.”
The feelings toward the end of an era and hope for a positive future without an annual prestigious visit to the New York State Fairgrounds are replicated by thousands of drivers and fans. “One last time” is now officially over.
By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com New York / Pennsylvania Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
Photo Credit: Duane & Evan Canfield / Rick Ibsen / Speed51.com
Syracuse 200 Results
|23||41||62s||Tom Sears Jr.||185|
|31||32||28p||Eldon Payne Jr||144|
|32||39||M40||Mark Forte Jr||140|