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.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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Good job. You have highlighted the real issue; that since there are only 35 legitimate, well-funded, teams, every week there are 8 positions filled by opportunists. They can find a sponsor, a car and have NASCAR credentials so they technically qualify. If you ask me this is another one of those things that make both fans and, more so, non-NASCAR fans question the legitimacy of the sport.
Not sure that there is anything that can be done about it though, assuming you want a 43 car field every week.
Sometimes a great column can only ask the tough questions. NASCAR has become like one of those rich folks country clubs where no matter how good a golfer you are you can’t play the course because you can’t meet the financial requirements to get in the door.
The shift in the culture of NASCAR has been pretty obvious even to the casual observer. As an example I was thinking this past weekend of how “Silly Season” has even changed over the years. Ten years ago silly season consisted of a good number of drivers moving to different teams as well as new teams joining the ranks in the NASCAR garage. Fast forward to today and there really isn’t even a Silly Season, (Can we have one more article on “Drivers that Need a Win”?). As John has correctly pointed out NASCAR has become a very exclusive club where the barriers to entry are firmly in place for anyone that doesn’t pass their credit check.
I agree that Silly Season has changed but I think it’s sillier and never ends. With all the people covering the sport we hear every bit of rumor and speculation non-stop. Yes, there are a lot of when will Tony win columns, but I’d bet dollars to donuts there have been more “Where will Carl land” stories.
Not only are there more people speculating but more sponsors, drivers, crew-chiefs, and manufacturer changing from year to year than I remember even a decade ago.
There are still a few new teams formed every year it’s just that most of them fold due to the high costs and learning curves. So you are right on that point.
Bill I agree with you that there have probably have been more articles regarding “Where will Carl land?” but that_is my point! The “Silly Season” has consisted mainly of where the Roush drivers will end up. Silly season used to have many topics but now we are down to just a couple of potential moves. Just because the race media writes more articles about the one or two drivers that may or may not move doesn’t make for a busy silly season.
If Dale Earnhardt was alive today and a little older, tried to compete and was denied, the people calling for Shepherd to go away would be bombing NASCAR headquarters.
Most of the drivers for today’s “have” teams could do no better than Shepherd did in that car. Logano should be careful who he insults. He ran a lot of races in the 20 car looking like he hadn’t even studied for a driver’s test.
One day someone will write a book about these times in the business of stock car racing. About the top 35 rule that perpetuated the mega teams while removing any reason for a rational businessperson to start up a major new teams. Perhaps the long term driver and team contracts that restrict movement of both. The manufacturers that pour hundreds of millions annually into a declining sport that has no relevance to the products they sell. Or maybe the sanctioning body that believes that times haven’t changed and the right combination of smoke and mirrors will bring the fans back one day. Wonder will there be any good guys in it?
But hey “it is what it is”.
Good article. NASCAR created their own problems and have made it impossible to compete unless you are part of one of the mega teams. Makes for far less interesting racing and is not nearly as much as when you could go to a race and cheer for an underdog team and they might be competitive, now most weeks they are simply rolling chicanes and that is a shame for them and for the fans.
A great column, Tom. I agree… the problem isn’t Morgan Shepherd or even Joe Falk. It’s Nascar and big money. Unfortunately, you either have franchising, or you accept the fact that there will always be have-nots out on the track simply filling the grid. I like the idea that a new team can show up at the track and try to qualify for the race, but in today’s world, those guys don’t have a chance in hell of being successful.
And its by design that they dont have a snowballs chance. The last thing these folks want is to divide the pie into smaller slices. The plan was, perhaps still is, for 10 teams each with 4 cars. Of course they didnt get enough big money teams in before they instituted the Top 35. Now nobody else is coming in as a team owner. If you want to be a part, than invest in an existing team, way more profitable.
lets see, stands half full, tv ratings in the bucket and nascar goes on as if everything is great. Now, they have to fill the field with a 72 year old ex driver., Go figure.
Wow, so in his youth he caused a few, so that give Morgan a pass and Joey should be sent to the woodshed for a snarky comment? I think he was actually nice about it compared to what the other drivers YOU KNOW would say. Everybody has hit somebody in their racing career, so when it happens to them..they cannot express their displeasure? Lame. Morgan was out there not to be competitive but to advance a personal goal of being the oldest Nascar driver, or something like that. If this happened to a HMS driver or the God known as Dale, the tide would not be in Morgans favor. I can picture these nuts with a petition to the .Gov website demanding he be remanded to a nursing home. These same people yelling about “respect” were the ugly ones who said horrible things about Richard Petty because he spoke the truth about Danica. Morgan should not be out there, even thought there isn’t a rule to the contrary. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. What was Logano suppose to say and do, take him home and have him move in his parents in-law appartment?
There are times that this site reads like another Nascar echo chamber full of ridiculous spin. I’ve come close to giving up on Frontstretch more and more often lately. Then someone writes a column like this that is well thought out and thought provoking. Best of all it treats me like an adult and not an idiot. Thank you.
I don’t know, Tom, maybe you saw a replay that I didn’t get since you seem to believe that Morgan wrecked Joey because Morgan is too old to drive. Admittedly, I don’t know what happened because my TV didn’t have a replay that actually showed how the crash started. But from what both Joey and Morgan said, Morgan moved down to let Joey by and as Joey came by much closer than he needed to, the air sucked Morgan’s loose racecar around and got him into Joey. Sounds like the same kind of thing that happens every week to drivers aged 18 and up. Doesn’t sound like age played any part at all.
I’ll tell you what else. I’ll just bet you that, had the roles been reversed, Morgan Shepherd could have found a way to pass a much slower car without getting wrecked. I’ve been a Logano fan but I’m sure not rooting for a kid who badmouths one of the best people in the sport.
All I know is that when watching the race I asked my buddy “Is that 33 a refugee from the street stocks at Star Speedway in Epping, N.H.?” That car had no business even being in the race. Period.