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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Morgan Shepherd

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Three days after competing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Morgan Shepherd celebrated his 75th birthday.

The oldest driver on the NASCAR circuit, Shepherd made his national series debut in 1970 at Hickory Motor Speedway. Through the years Shepherd has worked with some of the sport’s most iconic car owners: Bud Moore, the Wood Brothers and Richard Childress. To date, Shepherd has competed in 975 NASCAR races, earning 15 wins between the top two series.

But the question Shepherd commonly faces – or the comments he often hears – is why he’s still competing.

“It’s people, and the media mostly, that don’t think I should be out there at my age,” Shepherd told NBC Sports. “But then if you look at me on the racetrack, I don’t wipe out cars, I don’t wipe out other people. We had that big to-do up at Loudon, New Hampshire (in July 2014) but this was all before we got there that I had no business being out there.”

Shepherd lives by two P’s, passion and purpose. He also lives to serve Jesus Christ and believes he’s doing that by racing. His No. 89 even carries “Racing with Jesus” logos, and Shepherd spends his time away from the track assisting the needy and handicapped through the Morgan Shepherd Charitable Fund.

Next year, Shepherd will hit another milestone, by celebrating 50 years in racing.

“When I start hitting walls and making mistakes, I’ll get out of racing,” Shepherd said. “But right now, I’m here as a servant as long as the Lord wants me to be, and if I can help encourage another 75-year-old man to get up off the couch, do something with your life, go out and help people that need help, that’s what we’re all about. The Lord will tell me (when to stop).”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: Your father was a moonshiner, did you ever participate in moonshining?

Shepherd: Of course. I can remember my dad getting his first brand new pickup, a 1953 Ford pickup, and the law stopped him. He had a Pepsi Cola bottle that had some moonshine in it. They took his brand new pickup because of that. As I got into my teens and I started doing my stuff with a friend, Clifford Baker, we had built a still not far from his house. We got off work about 4 (o’clock) and were headed over to the still and as we headed down the hill, boom! There was a big explosion. Revenuers were down there, and they blew our still up. Well, we didn’t get caught, so we found a place up in Hildebran (N.C.) to buy liquor.

We both had big old Pontiacs, and a 1959 Pontiac Catalina you can lay down in the trunk of it and not touch neither side, that’s how big this car was. So we had plenty of room to haul moonshine. We were going to Hildebran up Interstate 40, and just something felt wrong. I saw an old 1962 burgundy Buick and ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) men drove that kind of car.

We got up there, and the guy said to come back about 7:30 and it’ll be ready. So we went down the road, and they waited until we got all the way by Hickory Speedway right there at the last turnoff … they had Conover law, the Hickory law, they had ABC men, they had Sheriff’s department, it was at least 30 cop cars.

You know how much liquor we had in that car? A Pepsi Cola bottle sitting between us, just like my dad. So I told Clifford, just get in the grass and just keep going. I knocked the lid off it and emptied it out, and I did that and didn’t let go of the bottle. For whatever reason, they were so focused on something else they didn’t see me with the door cracked open. They stopped us, and they knew they had us. They were under the car, they were beating on panels, they just knew there were hidden panels and everything else in that car. Well, that was the last of my moonshine. That was enough right there.

NBC Sports: Once you turned to the Christian faith it changed the way you approached life and acted, correct?

Shepherd: Before I got saved I would go on a weekend with the guys, and we’d all get drunk and just waste ourselves away and never thought about doing something for somebody else, it was all about us. Well when God comes into your life, truly, when you’ve truly accepted Jesus Christ, he changes all your thought process. Not that I’m any better than anybody else; not that I’m a perfect – this old man will still jump on your old hiney.

Did you hear about my deal five years ago? (When he ran down a shoplifter) I’ve never handcuffed a person in my whole life. I ran that rascal down, and he was looking at the cop car coming, so I hit him and somehow or another I caught his arm and ran it behind his back. I’m right handed – I had on camouflage stuff, so I reckon the cop thought I was from the military or something – and he jumps out of the car, throws the handcuffs, and I catch them with my left hand, and I cuff him, and he takes off after the other guy. Morgan Shepherd didn’t do that. It was all God’s strength and God had that all planned out.

NBC Sports: Having competed in over 900 NASCAR races, which ones still stand out the most?

Shepherd: I should have won Daytona several times. I ran second down there twice in the (Daytona) 500 and once in the (July) 400. My most memorable race would be 1986 Atlanta Motor Speedway. At that time, I thought I was on my way out of racing, I was somewhere around 47 years old. Jack Beebe came to me, I didn’t have a ride, and he said, ‘Morgan, I’m not going to run all year, this is going to be my last year racing, but do you want to run with me?’ I said yeah. Suitcase Jake (Elder) was over there, everybody knows Suitcase Jake, and so we ran Daytona and then we went to Atlanta to test. We’re testing, and the car wasn’t turning right, and I told Jake, let’s put 75 pounds of weight behind the left-rear wheel. He goes, ‘I ain’t putting no 75 pounds of weight behind no left rear wheel.’ I said, ‘Well don’t you want to get the car turning better?’ He said ‘Yeah, but that ain’t gonna help it.’

I stayed on him because I knew it would make the car turn better. Finally, he said ‘I don’t care if you put it on the roof,’ so I put the 75 pounds behind the left-rear wheel, and the car picked up. We qualified third when we ran that race, and we were really the car to beat all day. With about three laps to go Dale Earnhardt was second, I think Bill Elliott was third, and just tears come to my eyes, I couldn’t see the racetrack. I just was overcome that I thought I was on my way out of racing and all of a sudden my stock went up. These days, they’d never put an older driver in the car, it’s all about the young boys. But that was the moment because I just couldn’t believe it was happening.

NBC Sports: Having competed for many team owners, is there one, in particular, you really enjoyed working with?

Shepherd: The nicest guy there ever was in racing was Richard Jackson with the No. 1 car. He was the best along with the Wood Brothers. The Wood Brothers family are the most wonderful people that there is in racing. We clicked. Eddie was crew chief, but I was the crew chief more or less as they did everything I said; we did well together. We didn’t win but one race, but we had many top fives and seconds.

NBC Sports: How does it feel to be approaching your 50th year in racing?

Shepherd: I cannot believe it! I can’t believe I’ve been here 50 years. Man, when I was a kid I thought at 40 years old you pass on. (Next year) We’re going to do the cars in gold. We don’t know the design, but it’s not going to be just a gold car, it’ll have some fancy designs on it. If we do it with paint, PPG, they will supply all my paint product, they may come up with Shepherd’s gold, kind of like the Richard Petty blue.

Morgan Shepherd works out of this garage, which sits across from his house in Conover, N.C.
Morgan Shepherd works out of this garage, which sits across from his house in Conover, N.C.

NBC Sports: What is the makeup of Shepherd Racing?

Shepherd: I don’t have but two guys. Brandon helps us keep things cleaned up and whatever; I use him for spotting sometimes. This other boy, Nick, he is a trip. He was 19 when he came to work for me last year. He had not worked on a racecar; he went to school in Nashville for diesel engines. So he came to me about a job and that he’d do whatever I needed him to do. Since he hadn’t worked on racecars, I said I couldn’t give him a lot of money but if he did well I’d up it. So I give him $300 a week and a place to stay, and he has really just learned so fast. He’s going to be one of the top in the business. I told him if he’ll stick with this through my 50th year that I’ll get him a job because I know what he’s capable of. So he’s supposed to stay with me all through next year. It’s just him and Brian and me and my wife. We’re very small.

NBC Sports: What has surprised you the most about how much NASCAR has changed since you first started?

Shepherd: When I started racing I had no idea that corporate America was going to be here like this because even back in the late 1960’s when I was paying attention to Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, all these people, there were only about four or five cars that could win a race. The biggest thing that changed, I started in the 1960’s (in Late Models), well those races the tires were $25 a piece. My left front tire was on that car all year; the left rear was changed once and the right side maybe two or three times. We could build a car in two weeks. Now, the man hours in these cars, it is just incredible. All the pieces you buy for them are so high dollar. The changes in the sport have many, but the money situation has been the biggest, you didn’t have to have a lot of money back then.

Previous spotlight interviews:

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Daniel Suarez

Brandon Jones

Elliott Sadler

Rod Sieg

Chris Gabehart

Garrett Smithley

Brendan Gaughan

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

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Austin Dillon: Richard Childress Racing looking to be ‘leaner and meaner’ with two-car team

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – When the 2018 Cup season begins next month, Richard Childress Racing will show up with what Austin Dillon hopes is a “leaner and meaner” two-car operation.

Dillon confirmed RCR will only field two full-time cars this season Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour.

The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet will be joined by Ryan Newman in the No. 31.

Paul Menard, who drove the No. 27 for RCR from 2011-17, is now with Wood Brothers Racing driving the No. 21.

“That was something I was really excited about in the offseason, when we decided to go to a little bit smaller organization,” Dillon said. “I see a lot of two-car teams being successful. Furniture Row is going back to one car and they were a two-car team last year, won the championship. I’m really positive about that. … It’s nice to be able to focus on two cars and our crew chiefs are our best friends. … They want to put RCR where it needs to be and that’s winning championships.”

This will be the first time RCR has been a strictly two-car operation since 2000, when it fielded entires for Dale Earnhardt in the N0. 3 and Mike Skinner in the No. 31. The next season, they fielded a third part-time car in eight races. At its peak, RCR fielded four full-time cars.

It went from four to three full-time cars in 2012.

The team has also downscaled its Xfinity operation from five to three cars.

RCR was able to win two Cup races last season, with Dillon in the Coke 600 and Ryan Newman in the spring Phoenix race. They were the team’s first Cup wins since 2013. Dillon, entering his fifth full-time season in Cup, doesn’t see 2018 as a rebuilding year.

“I think (it’s) just a go forward year,” Dillon said. “We’re getting more resources than we’ve ever had for two teams for a full year. Three teams, you’re getting spread thin at times and now we have the people that we want around us and enough of them.”

When it comes to personnel, Dillon said the team has “grown stronger” in the area it most needed to – engineering.

“It is leaner and meaner, but as far as the depth and places you need them, it’s probably better, truthfully,” Dillon said.

One new addition for RCR is an old face for the team. Andy Petree, who won two championships with RCR as Earnhardt’s crew chief in 1994 and 1995, has rejoined the team as the vice president of competition.

Dr. Eric Warren, who was the director of competition beginning in 2012, will now report to Petree in his role as chief technology advisor.

“I’ve enjoyed Andy since he got to our organization,” Dillon said. “It’s a line between my grandfather and myself and Eric Warren and my grandfather. … Our sport’s moving in a direction that’s heading toward the future and Andy has a passion and always has had a passion for engineering, but also kind of plays to my grandfather’s cards where he’s got an old school part to him, too.

“He’s letting Eric Warren work in his area and Andy’s kind of relaying those messages and pushing my grandfather in the right direction we need to go.”

Whichever direction they go in, they’ll be joined by Richard Petty Motorsports.

The team that owns the No. 43 Chevrolet driven by Darrell Wallace Jr. entered a technical alliance with RCR and now finds its home on RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina.

“It was really cool yesterday having the King (Petty) in the room for a meeting with all of us,” Dillon said. “My grandfather, seeing those two iconic brands kind of standing together, it makes it special. I’m sure Chevrolet is excited about that, too.”

 

Richard Petty Motorsports following the footsteps of Furniture Row

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WELCOME, N.C. – All of the noise at Richard Petty Motorsports’ cozy new home on a recent Friday afternoon was coming from behind a short wall in the corner.

Several No. 43 cars were parked on the shop floor in various states of inactivity and incompletion, but the “Fusion” on the front bumper betrayed they were last year’s models.

Drew Blickensderfer, RPM’s crew chief, didn’t seem concerned as he cast a smile toward the source of the noise – a specialized fabrication department that could be the key to solving a championship-tested equation.

Less space and fewer people can equal better results.

“We have shrank quite a bit,” Blickensderfer said. “Right now, we’re bare bones, but we have the people we need to go racing and performance-wise to go racing.

“To grow into a Furniture Row, or a model similar to that, we need to get that (fabrication department) up and running.”

As RPM makes significant structural changes – switching to Chevrolet, aligning with Richard Childress Racing, shuttering its body-hanging staff – no one is expecting a quantum leap in performance for a team that finished 24th in the 2017 owner standings.

But an improvement to a top-20 car with long-term winning potential is expected, and the model is the reigning team in NASCAR’s premier series.

In winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has excelled by taking Joe Gibbs Racing chassis and optimizing the accompanying suspension parts and pieces through precision engineering and manufacturing.

RPM hopes to mirror the process through its reorganized fab department, which will have the same equipment from its previous home but with a more laser-targeted focus.

“If we can get that up and running, we’d be better off in the long run,” Blickensderfer said. “And that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to take a car from Richard Childress Racing and develop and work on it and ultimately have a better product for Sunday.”

RPM has traversed various paths toward competitiveness in recent seasons.

In 2014, the team was receiving chassis from Roush Fenway Racing but hanging its own bodies when it made the playoffs with Aric Almirola via a win at Daytona International Speedway. In 2015, RPM added chassis building to its workload but stumbled. Last year, it returned to hanging bodies on chassis supplied by Roush Fenway.

This year, RPM relocated from a 65,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville to a 20,000-square-foot space adjacent to RCR, which will deliver cars from its base just down the hill.

On arrival at RPM, all that is needed is interior (such as driver’s seat, steering wheel and column, air boxes and gear coolers) and mechanical work.

“Basically, it comes as a shell, the chassis with a body on it,” Blickensderfer said. “We do the wiring, the plumbing, the suspension parts, front and rear. Basically, all the parts you would bolt on.”

The change has allowed RPM to run leaner because there’s less work to be done on bodies. After employing about 80 last year (with 60 working on cars), RPM will have about 40 employees in 2018 with roughly 25 working on cars (about a half-dozen of those crew members will stay in the shop for assembly while the team is on the road, and RCR will supply the team’s pit crew).

The staff reduction will allow RPM to reallocate some funding toward R&D (after making zero trips to a wind tunnel last year).

Blickensderfer said the alliance with RCR should provide an aerodynamic foundation that will allow fine-tuning to have a greater impact. Last year, RPM “did a really good job of putting stuff that drove well under our race cars” but still faced the aerodynamic limitations of the Roush chassis.

“The thing that really creates speed on cars is the body and aero,” Blickensderfer said. “You can have the wrong springs in your car and mess up the other stuff a little bit, and you’d still be fast, at least in portions of the race. If you get all the springs right, and your aero is terrible, you still might be only a 20th-place car. That’s just the reality of it. The thing that is the most expensive to develop, create and implement is the aero stuff.

“So that’s why the big teams, they have all the wind tunnel data, and you’re racing against teams that are just developing faster than you can even produce cars. That’s why you’ve got to jump on board with them to get some of their information, or you’re going to be watching them coming behind you ready to lap you.”

With consolidation among chassis and engine builders an overarching trend in NASCAR for the past decade, alliances have become more prevalent. Besides RPM, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty also have similar arrangements.

But few have made it work as well as Furniture Row, which made the championship round in 2015 through an RCR alliance before switching to JGR and Toyota the next season. Relying on the setups and strategies of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex consistently outran JGR’s fleet of four Camrys in 2017 with a series-high eight victories and 19 stage wins – despite a few hundred fewer employees working at its Denver location.

“You step back and say, ‘How come no one else has been successful in that model?’ and you look at what Furniture Row has done with their model,” Blickensderfer said. “They still do some stuff in-house. So we pay RCR for an engineering agreement and to get cars from them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop ourselves. So you’d only be better off if you get extra money, you can start developing things yourself.

“Get all (the alliance team’s) information. Dump yours on top of it. You can’t help but get better in the long run that way. That’s what Cole and those guys have done. That’s the model that I would think the JTGs, the RPMs, the Germains, companies of this size, that’s what we need to strive to do is use that model to build up into that next level of race team.”

Though RPM will benefit from RCR’s aerodynamic R&D and assembly line capability, some of the information will be transferred the other way, too.

“They’re incorporating some of the stuff we had in our race cars into theirs that they think is going to make them better,” Blickensderfer said. “Before they put the body on it, we can change the brake system and do what we want, which eventually they’re going to do. And that saves us both time to make sure we have the best product.”

RPM took delivery of its first Camaro late last week for the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its hauler will be on the road Jan. 26 to Nevada, leaving about a week to finish preparing and setting up the car.

“That’s not all that tight of a timeframe,” Blickensderfer said. “What will happen in the future when we start racing is we’ll get a car two to three weeks before the event, and when we come in on a Monday morning after an event, the next week’s car is on the setup plate ready to go, so there’s only about a day’s worth of work we have to do to it.”

RPM has put its surface plates and other tools in cold storage, keeping open the option to revert to hanging bodies. But with the sponsorship landscape scarce, it makes such autonomy more difficult.

“If you could do everything yourself, you’d be better off, because then nobody gets your information,” Blickensderfer said. “But if (RCR) can take the money they’re developing cars with, and we can take the money we’re getting to develop cars and combine it, I think we all end up better. When there is less money in the pot to grab, the more of us that can throw the money in, the better we’ll be.”

Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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