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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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Brad Keselowski takes ‘torn to pieces’ car and finishes second in Auto Club 400

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Brad Keselowski was the only driver in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 who played in the grass and dirt and it wasn’t willingly.

In any other instance, this story likely has a disappointing ending.

However, when Keselowski climbed out of his N0. 2 Ford at race’s end to survey his mangled left-rear fender, he was doing so after finishing ahead of 37 other drivers in a 39-car field. The only driver ahead of him was Kyle Larson

Keselowski earned his fourth top five of the season after he went sliding through the front stretch grass on Lap 4 of the 202-lap race. The slide was a result of contact with Jimmie Johnson after Keselowski fell from third to 17th place in the first three laps. His drop came after the inside lane bottlenecked at the start, causing Ryan Newman to run into Keselowski’s rear bumper.

“I wanted to win but I got out of the car and looked at the damage and this thing is torn to pieces,” Keselowski told Fox Sports. “I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up.”

The perseverance of Team Penske’s No. 2 team occurred without its leader, crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe was serving the first of a three-race suspension after the No. 2 failed post-race inspection at Phoenix last week.

Keselowski and his damaged ride earned his second top five in three years at the 2-mile track. He never finished better than 18th in his first six starts at the track built by team owner Roger Penske.

“Glad I got the race on record on the DVR so I can see it,” Keselowski said later in a press conference. “We really turned a corner here.  The first few races I ran here, we were awful.  I think I learned a lot, the team learned a lot. Have put together just a much more robust effort for this type of track. I like coming to places we run well.  But beyond that, I think this track is known for having great races and great racing.  I thought we saw that here at the end today.  It’s fun to be a part of those races.”

Keselowski had an average running spot of 15.5. The No. 2 was one of the first cars a lap down at the end of the first stage, but was 10th at the end of the second stage on Lap 120. At the end of the afternoon, he had spent 117 laps in the top 15.

On the overtime restart, Keselowski found himself in third, exactly where he began the race.

“I don’t know if I would have had a shot at Kyle, but I’d like to have seen,” Keselowksi said of Larson. “We came from third on that last one, a couple of three‑wide passes and whatnot, because Kyle was smart. He picked the outside lane, kind of pinned me behind a guy that had older tires.

“By the time I cleared everybody, Kyle was just too far gone.”

Meanwhile, the other drivers damaged on the race’s initial start also bounced back, albeit with cars that were covered in duct tape. Newman finished 15th while Kevin Harvick finished 13th. Both were on the lead lap.

Keselowski ends his “West Coast Swing” second in the points behind Larson. He’s been in the top three for four of the first five races.

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Clint Bowyer scores first top-five finish since 2015

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A day after telling reporters that “we have to get in the top 10, this is a top-10 company,’’ Clint Bowyer finished third Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

It marked his first top-five finish since joining Stewart-Haas Racing before this season and was his first top five since placing fifth in the August 2015 Bristol night race for Michael Waltrip Racing.

“It was a good weekend for us,’’ said Bowyer, who finished sixth in Stage 1 and fourth in Stage 2. “We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.’’

Bowyer went from sixth to third in overtime, taking advantage of starting on the outside lane, the preferred lane. Bowyer passed Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney in overtime to score the top-three result.

With the finish, Bowyer climbed seven spots in the NASCAR Cup standings to eighth.

Bowyer was the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver to place in the top 10. Kevin Harvick suffered damage at the start of the race when Hamlin was slow to get going and placed 13th. Kurt Busch battled handling issues and finished 24th. Danica Patrick also had her struggles and was scored in 26th.

Bowyer excelled Sunday because his car was so good on the apron in Turns 3 and 4, something that caught him by surprise.

“One thing that I didn’t see today that we’ve seen in years past is just that rim riding … around the outside,’’  he said. “You saw it that first run. Man, I could get down and kind of split the apron in three and four. I could see that I was better than them down there. If I could keep that going throughout the run, you know, I knew that was going to be an advantage when it comes down to these cautions and everything else, the restarts that we saw at the end.

“Everybody else catches on and figures that out. But that was something that was a little bit different from practice sessions and everything else. I mean, I don’t think I left, you know, the fourth and fifth groove in practice the whole weekend. I think the third groove was the lowest I was in practice, even qualifying. Then all of a sudden you start the race, and you’re straddling the apron and running on the bottom and everything else.

“That’s just what is cool about this racetrack. You got to be able to adapt, you got to be able to have the car free enough across the center so that you can throttle through the corners, not too tight, and tight enough that the rear doesn’t come out from underneath you. It’s a constant battle balancing those tires and taking care of those tires, as well.’’

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What drivers said after the Auto Club 400

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Kyle Larson stayed in control during an overtime restart to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400 for his second Cup Series win.

Here’s what Larson and the rest of the field had to say after the fifth race of the season.

KYLE LARSON – winner: “I was staying as calm as I could be but also (was) frustrated at the same time.  It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out, and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.  Our Target Chevy was amazing all day.  We were able to lead a lot of laps today.  (Martin) Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit.  We were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.  I had to fight them off there after the green-flag stops, and that was a lot of fun. … This is just amazing.  We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row.  I’ve been watching all the TV like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished second: “Just great perseverance by the No. 2 team here with the Wurth Ford Fusion. I wanted to win, but I got out of the car and looked at the damage, and this thing is torn to pieces. I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up. But great day for us to really persevere. You’re just going to have that in a 36-race season.”

Clint Bowyer – Third: “It was a good weekend for us.  We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.  I was proud of the effort that Buga and all the guys give me each and every week.  I’m proud to have Rush Truck Centers on our car this weekend.  It’s just a great sponsor and a fun guy.  I’m just having fun again.  That’s what it’s about.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Fourth: “We were right there all day long. I felt like (Kyle Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air. Toward the end, we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did, and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end. It was a good day, and we have fast cars, and we’ll continue to work on them.”

Joey Logano – Fifth: “It was up and down for sure.  Our car was really good on the short runs just like yesterday. Our car was good on the short runs and not good on the long runs. We would lose too much time. We tried to short-pit them and got caught with the caution and got stuck down a lap with 20 to go or so.  We were able to recover, and at one point, I thought we were going to win the race and had some trouble on pit road and lost some spots again, but we were able to make some of them back up and end up with a top five out of it with the Auto Club Fusion. It was up and down to say the least for the whole weekend for me.”

Jamie McMurray – Sixth: “Our team and our whole organization has done an amazing job to get to the point that we are. It’s not one thing; it’s hundreds of small things. I’m so happy for all the guys at our shop that have worked hard. In our sport, every team works hard; and you’re not always rewarded for it. It’s awesome to be rewarded for all the work.”

Daniel Suarez – Seventh: “I think the result is very good. That’s exactly what we are here for, but we have to keep working the race in general. I feel like we were not great – we were just OK – and then in the last couple of rounds in the last couple adjustments, the car was much, much better. I wish it was like that the whole race, and if it was going to be like, we were going to be running in the top 10 like we finished the entire race. We have to keep working. I know that there is room to improve it still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”

Ryan Blaney – Ninth: “I thought we were not great at the beginning, kind of faded at the end of the first stage.  I thought at the beginning of the first stage, we were really good.  We drove up there. In the early part, we seemed to fade late in runs. In the middle part, we had equipment leave the pit box, and that put us in a big hole back there, but we did a good job fighting back, putting ourselves in a decent position to have a good finish and a decent shot at (the win). Most restarts worked in our favor except the last one. We just got put three wide there and kind of got hurt. Overall not a bad day for us coming back from that pit-road penalty. That was pretty good.”

Chase Elliott – 10th: “We were just trying to do something different. I thought (the unscheduled late pit stop) was going to give us the best chance of winning. (Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) did as well. We had a good NAPA Chevy, and we were on the same page. He made the right call. And you can’t control when the caution comes out. So that’s just part of it.”

Austin Dillon – 11th: “I wish we could have done more with the position we were in with tires. On the outside lane, we cannot fire off the first couple of laps.  We struggle with that, and I’m going to start practicing it and figuring out why we can’t turn. I’m proud of my guys, but I guess we just wanted more.”

Erik Jones – 12th: “We were fast. We just don’t complete the races that well, so we have to go to work and get a little bit better and figure out how we ran all day.”

Kevin Harvick – 13th: “I feel like we won. Those are the days that championships are made out of right there. To wreck before we even get to the start-finish line, I don’t know exactly what happened in front of me, but, obviously, we got a caved-in grille. They did a great job fixing it. We got some wavearounds and made the car better and made something out of the day. That’s why these guys are who they are and won championships and races because they can make days like that happen.”

Denny Hamlin – 14th: “Race was pretty good. Our cars were a little bit slow overall. I mean, that’s the biggest thing now is that our car’s just slow. We’ve got to work on that and try to get our balance a little better and get out engines a little bit better, and we’ll be all right.”

Ryan Newman– 15th: “It was a tough and long day for us. We got a hole in the front nose on the first lap that cost us our track position. Then we battled an extremely tight-handling car that put us a lap down. We finally raced back onto the lead lap with 19 to go. It certainly wasn’t the finish we wanted, but it was a decent recovery.”

A.J. Allmendinger – 17th: “We definitely started off really loose which, kind of thought we might just go into the race just trying to get on the other side of it.  I was still a little bit tight trying to roll the center, which is kind of where we have been struggling a little bit, but made good adjustments and thought we got the car as good as we could have gotten it.  It was kind of right in that area.  I thought we maximized the speed of the car today and wish we would have had one less yellow.  I really thought I had made a good move and gotten clear of the next group behind me and thought maybe we would pick off a couple more.”

Ty Dillon – 18th: “My No. 13 Chevrolet team fought hard all day. We really struggled with the balance in the first two stages. I was tight through the center and loose on exit. Crew chief Bootie Barker worked with different adjustments to get us where we needed to be. Our Chevy SS was the best it had been all day there in that last segment. We made a strategy call and stretched our gas mileage to try and make it with only one green-flag stop to end the race while the leaders would need another, but late-race cautions kept that from working. We battled hard and, despite handling issues, it was a good end to the day.”

Aric Almirola – 19th: “We struggled. We just don’t have the overall grip and speed in our cars, but we’re working hard. Everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard.  It’s a big improvement from Atlanta.  We gained on it when we went to Vegas and then we’ve kind of gotten flat and stagnant and we haven’t been making as many gains and strides since Atlanta, so we still have some work to do.  I’m proud of the effort. We just have to dig deep.  We have to keep working hard and get speed in our car and more grip in our car so we can go and compete.”

Jimmie Johnson – 21st: “Man, we definitely didn’t have the fastest car out there today. I think we used up all the good luck in the season finale last season. We battled all day long to get back on the lead lap, but we have got some work to do.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with my girls and heading to Martinsville next weekend with this Lowe’s team.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 22nd: ”It’s just unfortunate. Our Fastenal Ford started out tight early on in the runs but would come around later in the run, and we were able to pass some cars. Overall we had a solid day, and the pit crew did a great job on pit-road just unfortunate we didn’t get the finish we deserved.”

Trevor Bayne –  23rd: “I hate that that happened at the end of the race. We had a really fast AdvoCare Ford all race long and were able to really make some gains and passes out there. It’s just unfortunate that our day ended the way it did. We’ll recover from this and get after it next week in Martinsville.”

Chris Buescher – 25th: “It was a long afternoon in our No. 37 BUSH’s Beans Chevy. We got a decent starting spot but got shuffled back early and struggled to gain spots back. Then on the last restart, everyone got fanned out from another car getting in the wall, and we just lost all momentum. Next week, we’ve got a completely different setup as we go short-track racing, and I’m looking forward to racing with the short-track program at JTG Daugherty Racing.”

Matt Kenseth – 36th: “Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t do the best job getting through the gears, and I think (Jamie McMurray) got stuck outside of me, so I was trying to leave room for him on the top, and then I just got hit in the left-rear quarter panel off of Turn 2 and got spun out, and I was just kind of along for the ride.”f

Kyle Larson extends points lead after California win

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Kyle Larson padded his points lead Sunday after winning the opening stage, finishing second in the second stage and then winning the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson has a 29-point lead on Chase Elliott heading to next Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. is 38 points behind Larson, Brad Keselowski is 64 points behind Larson and Joey Logano is 69 points behind Larson.

Larson scored 59 of a maximum 60 points Sunday.

Click here for NASCAR Cup points