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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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Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.