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In Defense of Morgan Shepherd…

In Defense of Morgan Shepherd…

by July 15, 2014 0 comments

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Lap 211 of the Camping World RV Sales 301 brought about some controversy surrounding the race after an incident between Joey Logano (Team Penske) and Morgan Shepherd (Hillman-Circle Sport LLC.)

Logano, a Chase contender, was in the middle of a solid top-three run and was on his way to confirming his spot in the Chase until he was taken out in an accident by Shepherd – who was 15 laps down at that point – heading into Turn 2. Logano’s car would be unrepairable and would hand the driver of the No. 22 Auto Trader Ford a 40th-place finish and his fourth DNF of the year. Shepherd on the other hand would continue to run but would finish just in front of Logano in the 39th position – 29 laps down.

The No. 33 Hillman-Circle Sport Chevrolet has been no stranger to controversy due to questionable moves on the race track this season. As the Food City 500 at Bristol entered a caution period on Lap 156 back in March, Timmy Hill would accidentally run into the back of then race contender Matt Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) – inflicting heavy body damage on both the No. 33 and No. 20 cars.

While both Shepherd and Hill received some backlash over their moves against Logano and Kenseth, the reactions towards both drivers after leaving both events was noticeably different.

While Hill would receive some heckling from fans on social media after his Bristol incident, fans would have no issue with his participation at Kansas, Pocono, and most recently in New Hampshire in the Sprint Cup Series. Shepherd on the other hand would have fans calling for his barring from participating in races for not just the rest of the season, but completely from racing in general.

To provide some further context into this matter, Hill is 21-years-old while Shepherd is 72.

Prior to the cars even taking to the one-mile circuit in Loudon, Shepherd was already receiving flack for taking up a seat that could be better used by a young driver such as Hill or Alex Kennedy, who drove the No. 33 entry in two races this season. I believe that some commentators need to realize that the No. 33 Circle Sport entry hasn’t been the most competitive ride all season. The best finishes on a non-restrictor plate track for the team were a pair of 35th-place runs at Richmond and Kentucky by David Stremme – another driver who wouldn’t exactly fit in the category of being a ‘young gun’ as Stremme is 37-years-of-age. What good would a car that is not competitive in most races of the year do for a young driver looking to develop their skills and make a name for themselves?

Logano suggested after climbing out of his wrecked race car that drivers should be subjected to driving tests to prove their abilities prior to racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

“I feel like there should be, like, a driver’s test before you get out in a Cup car and make sure you know how to drive before you drive one,” Logano said. “But I don’t know. I guess there isn’t.”

It is not as if Shepherd is a rookie himself. Shepherd is a 32-year veteran of the Sprint Cup Series with 517 races under his belt in the premier series alone. The Ferguson, North Carolina native is also a four-time race winner in the Sprint Cup Series and a 15-time race winner in the Nationwide Series. Just because he runs in equipment that is not completely up to par does not mean that he is not a capable race driver; if we applied that mentality to everybody, we’d be casting aside drivers such as Bobby Labonte (who ran the No. 33 in the Coke Zero 400), Terry Labonte, and Bill Elliott (all former champions) as guys who can’t cut it in NASCAR.

To critics who believe that Shepherd was not up to the physical task of wrestling a stock car around a track with speeds topping out at over 150 miles-per-hour, NASCAR also requires their drivers to pass a physical prior to entering races in their cars. This applies to not just the full-time drivers who run every single race to contend for a championship, but it also applies to part-time drivers such as Shepherd as well. NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton, stood behind Shepherd in a post-race statement.

“Morgan Shepherd has always been approved,” Pemberton said. “He’s been approved for decades. Under our situation here, you take a physical at the beginning of the year, you pass your physical, you pass inspection with your car, you qualify for the race and you run the event. He met everything he needed to meet.”

It must also be noted that not once in the Camping World RV Sales 301 did Shepherd run a lap below the minimum speed that NASCAR set prior to the running of the event. Yes, Shepherd was indeed off-the-pace with handling issues (Shepherd would state that his car was “wicked loose” throughout the race) for the majority of the race but he was still running lap times above the minimum speed set by NASCAR. Had he dropped below the minimum speed and consistently stayed underneath it then NASCAR would have parked the No. 33 car without hesitation.

Talk of implementing maximum age limits in NASCAR has been floated around since Sunday’s accident by fans of the sport. This I find interesting as I believe that had Logano and Shepherd not had their accident on Lap 211, there would be no uproar over Shepherd being too old to race. If a driver has the ability to make a race in qualifying and has received approval by NASCAR to race, then that driver should be allowed to race. Shepherd has been able to race at the Sprint Cup and Nationwide level by qualifying for the races while fellow septuagenarian James Hylton has DNQ’d in his last two attempts to make a Sprint Cup race in 2007 and 2009. The only thing that will (and should) keep Shepherd out of NASCAR events is if he’s out-qualified, simple as that.

If we take a look at Shepherd’s NASCAR activity in recent years we can clearly see that he may be slowly bringing his NASCAR career to a close. Just two years ago Shepherd was running a near-full season in the Nationwide Series for his own team. Last year, Shepherd was entered for 22 races across all three of NASCAR’s national series. Looking at this year as we cross the halfway mark for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide seasons, Shepherd has only been entered in six events in the top-two series and none in the Camping World Truck Series. If Shepherd is going to bow out of NASCAR, he’s going to do it under his own terms.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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