|Logano's day ruined.|
The Team Penske driver was running a solid second behind teammate and eventual winner Brad Keselowski with just 88 laps remaining, before an on-track incident with the lapped car of 72-year old Morgan Shepherd ended his hopes for Victory Lane.
Shepherd was a whopping 16 laps down at the time, after qualifying slowest in the 43-car field, 2.2 seconds off Kyle Busch’s pole speed. His time was a quarter of a second slower than that of the 42nd-place qualifier, Timmy Hill, and he ran 20-30 mph off the pace from the outset before losing the handle, drifting up the track and wrecking Logano.
“I just gotten taken out by the slowest car out there,” said an incredulous Logano afterward. “You'd think there would be some courtesy to the leaders, (but) I guess not. I feel there should be a driver's test, but I guess there isn't.''
For his part, Shepherd complained about the handling of his Circle Sport Racing Chevrolet after the wreck, saying via in-car radio, “Guys, I can't hang on to this thing. (It’s) spinning out going into the corner. It doesn't take much for somebody to get up against me and pull this thing around."
|Shepherd's run will inspire debate.|
Sunday’s incident will almost certainly re-ignite the debate over the need for further age restrictions in NASCAR. At present, the sanctioning body mandates only a minimum age for national series competition, while requiring drivers to prove their mettle on smaller tracks before being cleared to race on superspeedways. There is no maximum age limit, however, and drivers like Shepherd who have competed for decades routinely receive the green light to continue racing for as long as they like, provided they pass a simple, pre-season physical examination. Aging drivers are not required by the sanctioning body to prove they can skill perform at a high level behind the wheel, and in light of Sunday’s incident, the time for such requirements may finally have come.
This is not the first time in recent seasons that Shepherd has served as a rolling road block. Last fall, he struggled mightily at the Loudon speed plant in equipment that was admittedly not up to snuff. Unfortunately, the results were the same this time around, despite driving for a Circle Sport Racing team that performed well the previous week at Daytona International Speedway with driver Bobby Labonte. Shepherd was embarrassingly slow again Sunday and consistently impeded the progress of the leaders before ending Logano’s bid for Victory Lane in an incident that quite simply should never have happened.
I have great respect for Morgan Shepherd, as both a racer and a man. He is a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner, with an additional 15 career victories in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In his day, he was a force to be reckoned with, wherever and whenever he raced. But those days are long gone.
Despite his resume, Shepherd exhibited neither reasonable speed nor control over his race car last weekend, as Logano can surely attest. Even worse, he displayed extremely poor judgment by remaining on the race track with nothing to gain in a car that was 16 laps down and – by his own admission -- woefully ill-handling.
Professional athletes are infamous for staying too long at the dance. Muhammad Ali, 38-years old and with slowed reflexes and slurred speech caused by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, was pummeled into retirement by Larry Holmes in a 1980 fight described by actor Sylvester Stallone as “like watching an autopsy on a man who was still alive.” Closer to home, NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip both struggled simply to qualify for races late in their careers.
Shepherd’s most recent NASCAR win came 21 years ago, in March of 1993 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Of the drivers who finished in the Top-10 that day, only Shepherd and then-rookie Jeff Gordon remain active today. The others -- Ernie Irvan, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine, Kyle Petty, Brett Bodine, Bill Elliott and Jimmy Spencer -- have long ago retired.
Based on Sunday’s race at NHMS, it’s time for Shepherd to consider doing the same. It’s also time for NASCAR to ensure that every driver – regardless of age – possesses the skills needed to compete safely at the sport’s highest level.