I didn’t start following NASCAR until the 2003 season, and entered that year as a curious viewer with absolutely no knowledge of the sport’s history or its competitors. Thus, I had absolutely no clue who Morgan Shepherd was.
All I saw was a 60 plus year old man who just couldn’t give up a sport that had seemingly passed him by. 2003 saw Shepherd qualify for only two Sprint Cup races, scoring last place finishes in them both.
In fact, until 2008 I saw Shepherd running at the finish of only three of the 89 races that he started across NASCAR’s top three national divisions.
So when he announced that he was planning to run a full Nationwide Series schedule in his own No. 89 cars, I didn’t give it a second thought, dismissing his campaign as nothing more than the same field-filling I’d seen him engaging in for the past five years.
And for the first nine races of 2008, it was more of the same. Shepherd failed to qualify for the events at Daytona and Mexico City, while failing to finish the other seven that he did make the field for.
Then came Talladega.
As usual, the restrictor-plate racing offered at the high-speed Alabama oval resulted in a great deal of attrition, with lots of the fastest cars bowing out early with crash damage. Shepherd, meanwhile, stayed in the back of the pack and missed the wrecks.
Once the field thinned out, the then 66 year-old driver put the pedal to the floor and into the lead drafting pack, cracking the top 10 for much of the race’s final 30 laps and even challenging for the lead at one point.
By day’s end, Shepherd finished on the lead lap in the 13th position, a finish that turned eyes everywhere from the garage to the grandstands.
What did Shepherd do after this? Excited, he surprised everyone in the racing community when he called-in as a guest to Tony Stewart’s radio show the following week.
The call proved fruitful; impressed both with Shepherd’s top 15 finish the weekend prior plus his unvarnished enthusiasm to still be racing, Stewart and announcer Matt Yocum decided to pick up Shepherd’s tire bill for the upcoming race at Richmond.
Shepherd accepted the tires, and completed the race at Richmond in 28th, his best short track finish in any form of NASCAR racing since 2001.
The week after that, with tires again bought and paid for, Shepherd tamed the famed “Lady in Black” that is Darlington Raceway, finishing in the 16th position while outrunning some of the Sprint Cup Series’ brightest stars, including Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin.
Shepherd ended his 2008 campaign with eight top 25 finishes while finishing 29th in the Nationwide Series standings. Suddenly Shepherd wasn’t the old guy who couldn’t let go anymore.
Instead the Nationwide Series had a 67 year-old racer on their hands, defying the odds with a skeleton crew and race cars that carried the decals not of big corporate sponsors, but of Racing with Jesus ministries.
And the NASCAR community took notice. While star drivers including Cup champions Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart picked up the tire bill for Shepherd on numerous occasions in 2008, Kevin Harvick took that one step further, offering Shepherd technical help where he could at the track through his own Kevin Harvick, Incorporated operation.
I’ll never forget the sight of seeing the elder Shepherd jump from his underdog ride after practice at the Nationwide race in Charlotte in October, only to sprint through the garage straight to Harvick’s hauler, eager to hear from a driver more than two decades younger than he anything he could do to his machine to qualify for the night’s race (he failed to make the field that night nonetheless).
More importantly, Harvick gave Shepherd a special gift for the 2009 campaign…one of his own KHI Chevrolets.
And Shepherd has put his new hot rod to work. Not only has he qualified for the first four races of the 2009 Nationwide Series season, he posted two top 20 finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas. Both of these western tracks are long, horsepower driven and heavily dependent on aerodynamics. In short, they’re a nightmare for underdog teams.
That didn’t stop Shepherd from outrunning multi-million dollar super-teams from Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.
And that’s why, despite having endured two destructive crashes at Bristol two weeks ago that left his prize KHI Chevrolet a mangled wreck, I don’t see Shepherd missing the field for this weekend’s upcoming Nationwide Series race at Texas. Nor do I see him having a hard time being competitive.
Morgan Shepherd is not going to win the 2009 Nationwide Series title. Chances are but nil he’ll even come close to winning a single race. But, even pushing 70, Shepherd is playing with the big boys of NASCAR racing today.
With minimal sponsorship and technical support, he is accomplishing more on the race track than youngsters less than a third his age.
That may not rival the exploits of Shaquille O’Neal or Kurt Warner in many sports fans’ eyes. But to those who follow NASCAR and know how hard it is for underdog racers today, it truly is something significant.
See you in Fort Worth, Morgan.