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July 09. 2013 9:19PM

Race Week

George Diaz: Morgan Shepherd's run at NASCAR history deserves an asterisk


NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Morgan Shepherd (89) heads to the garage during the Ford 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway in 2011. (Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)

 

News item: Morgan Shepherd is set to become the oldest driver ever to start a Sprint Cup Series race when he drives for Brian Keselowski Motorsports at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in this weekend's Camping World RV Sales 301.

Question: Why should anyone care?

It would be neat to see an old guy who is 71 years old rolling with stars of the sport such as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, but that's not going to happen. Shepherd very likely will only make a cameo and last less than 50 laps.

Shepherd has run in four Nationwide races this year, and his season-high lap count is 72 at Talladega. Otherwise, he's logged all of 14, 15 and 21 laps in his other three starts.

So let's call this for what it is: A competitive sideshow.

It would be no different than the Baltimore Ravens or Chicago Bears signing an old flag-football guy to "compete" in a game, then having him run onto the field for one play.

NASCAR has always had a quirky affinity with lower-tier drivers running inferior equipment with underfunded teams. They are the "start-and-park" guys who show up at an event, qualify (if necessary) and then run a few laps before dropping out. They can still pick up a decent paycheck, the only point of an otherwise pointless endeavor.

Shepherd may be a cut above that, but not by much. He's had all sorts of car problems, from engine failures to handling issues, reflecting the fact that the car had no business on the track in the first place.

But they help fill up the field, which is what will happen in Shepherd's case.

For the longest time, he has survived on hand-me-downs from compassionate competitors in the garage and $20 donations from devoted fans.

There is a greater purpose. A deeply religious man, Shepherd has used his appearances at race tracks to promote his "Racing With Jesus" brand. A former sinner himself who was big on booze and babes, Shepherd hopes that someone will be inspired to seek salvation somewhere along the grandstands.

"I'm kind of like Michael Combs, the gospel singer," Shepherd told me a few years ago. "He sings Not for Sale, and that's pretty much the way it has been over the years. I won't represent anything that's going to hurt people."

Shepherd certainly has earned his stripes over the long haul, with four Cup victories in 514 career starts. But his last Sprint Cup start came at age 64 in 2006 at New Hampshire. Shepherd's most recent Cup victory came two decades ago, at Atlanta in March 1993.

A race fan would like to think that everybody in the field of 43 drivers has a shot to win a race, however minuscule.

Shepherd has no shot to win this weekend, no matter how he will be viewed in the annals of NASCAR history.


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