Every American major league sport sells itself as the best of the best. The Super Bowl is designed to crown the “best” football team in the world (Canadian Football, be damned!) The Stanley Cup is fought with the “top” hockey players signed to North American contracts. On Tuesday, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game will highlight the “best” players at each position, from each league in a celebration-turned-weak competition.
But even the best sales job avoids an awkward reality: that “buzz word” defining greatness is sometimes an optical illusion. That All-Star Game, this Tuesday will include baseball players voted in by reputation, not talent. The Super Bowl may crown the “best team,” but they often don’t have the best regular season record. Success, in athletics is subjective based on the eye of the beholder, cracks in the armor that can sometimes let a 72-year-old competitor slip on the entry list.
This ugly example, brought out at New Hampshire does bring us to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, often sold as the “best stock car drivers in the country” but filled instead with a potpourri of athletic agendas. Blame it on the economy, Brian France, or the way the cookie crumbles, the endgame is still the same: times have changed. It used to be, in a field where 50 cars once competed for 43 spots, driving talent was at a premium. If you could rise through the ranks, track champion at your local schmocal bullring in the middle of the country a spot in stock car racing was assured through talent alone. Even the best “sponsor drones,” young guns with cash couldn’t survive when their speed won’t get them in the race.
But in NASCAR 2014, a gluttony of riches at the top has led to a record gap between rich, poor, and “I’m just here to collect some purse money and get out of here” on a 43-car grid. At Kentucky, a few weeks ago, NASCAR had a short field and was unable to trot out that magic number of “43” for the first time since November 2001. Start-and-parking, where teams run a few laps and then pull in early just to collect some extra cash, was a business practice that boomed for nearly a decade until this year, when most underdogs came to play. For every Jimmie Johnson seeking a championship, there’s a car at the back of the grid whose goals have now become very different: finish the race; create some “buzz” in any way possible; bring the car home in one piece.
To achieve those goals, especially when putting one or two-race deals together you’re often not going to need “the best of the best.” That’s where Morgan Shepherd comes in, the 72-year-old former NASCAR veteran who may love Jesus but needs a whole lot of praying to step in a Cup car again after Sunday night. Shepherd, whose Racing for Jesus team has slowly backed off from Nationwide Series competition hadn’t completed a Cup race since 2004, at age 62. His last full-time ride, in Cup competition came with Richard Jackson in 1997. To say he’s the 43rd-best driver in stock car racing today would be like saying Amanda Bynes should serve as your “voice of reason” or weekly psychotherapist.
But Shepherd, who became the oldest Cup Series driver in history Sunday was the perfect fill-in for a Joe Falk team working off patchwork deals from drivers David Stremme, Brian Scott, and several others. With a sponsor, Thunder Coal, willing to fit the bill Shepherd could easily slot in the seat as there were only 43 drivers attempting to qualify at New Hampshire (for 43 spots). Still owning a NASCAR license, based on past history the man born two months before Pearl Harbor slotted in with “the best stock car racers in the country” dead last.
To Shepherd’s credit, he wasn’t too far off the pace, running above NASCAR’s minimum speed requirements. But he was also trying to go the distance, something difficult for any 72-year-old at this level, and for a split second, it appears the long-term demands of wheeling a Cup car caught up with him. Sliding to the inside of Joey Logano, as lapped traffic, Shepherd simply lost control in Turn 3, drifted up and body-slammed the No. 22 Ford as if he was trying to wipe both cars out.
“I got taken out by the slowest car out there,” said the youngster, in contention for the win at the time who at one point said Shepherd needed to take a “driver’s test” before racing at this level. “You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders. We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in. It is just dumb that it happened. I feel like that should be stuff that shouldn’t happen at this level of racing.”
Owner Roger Penske, part of the Race Team Alliance formed earlier this week (one that Shepherd’s owner, trying-to-make-ends-meet Joe Falk is not a part of) was a little more diplomatic.
“Well, you know, Morgan is a good friend of everybody in the garage area,” he said. “He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve tried to support him. Obviously he was not doing anything out there that he expected to have someone in an accident with him. I told Joey, look, you can’t go back and fix it. We’ve got to move on.”[Shepherd]‘s a guy, and that’s the great thing about the sport, that if you want to tee it up here and bring your car and have a team, we let them run, so I don’t feel bad about it other than the fact that Joey got knocked out.”
Of course, Penske does feel bad about it; he knows, until top-tier ownership expands the number of cars they put on the grid these types of novelty acts will happen. NASCAR has 43 openings, each week for a spot in the race; 30 or so are now filled by high-dollar teams and the rest are filled by those just scraping to compete. You can’t blame Falk, as he’s filling one of those spots, open to any competitor looking to spend enough money. You can’t blame Shepherd, either, as NASCAR gave him a license, good enough to drive anywhere, anytime. So who would turn down the opportunity to get back in a series you once won in, even at age 72? It’s money, and Shepherd qualified above minimum speed. It’s not like he was a complete disaster.
Still, Sunday highlighted just how gaping the cliff is between those “haves” and “have nots” on this level. The accident was eerily similar to Darlington, a decade ago where the faster Jeff Gordon got caught in a wreck with underdog Andy Hillenburg.
At least in that one, a younger Hillenburg, with a team trying to build for the future, had hope of improvement with a faster car. Shepherd, at age 72 has had the prime of his athletic career pass him by. There is no hope here; only an ugly downhill slide revealed. It’s a tough act for mainstream America to swallow, an open admission that NASCAR really isn’t touting the “best 43 stock car racers in the world.” It’s “the best 30 or so, then whomever wants to pay for a seat or keep a seat warm until another rich owner fields another competitive car.”
“72-year-old Morgan Shepherd, wrecking into Joey Logano! The highlight of the year!” On a dominant day by Brad Keselowski in New Hampshire, where the No. 2 car turned the field into mashed potatoes, that’s the clip which will make SportsCenter and all the local news around the country. Is that what’s going to get the younger generation involved? Looking at a 72-year-old, ten miles per hour slower than the field wrecking a driver and they go, oh wow, this sport is cool!
Nope, because this country, when it comes to entertainment wants to believe it’s watching the best athletes at all times. And that’s not what they saw at New Hampshire Sunday. What was revealed was an old guy who shouldn’t be there, desperation within NASCAR to fill the grid taking precedence over drawing a line on athletic competition. By letting anyone compete, in a sense NASCAR showed us just how few people actually want to.
That’s not the “best” sales job, per se. It’s making yourself look as old and dated as the guy who wrecked Logano.