By Dustin Albino
Over the past 50 years, countless things have changed in NASCAR while some have stayed the same. Morgan Shepherd has been there for it all.
Shepherd, 79, began his NASCAR Cup Series career in 1970 competing for Bill Flowers, placing 19th at Hickory Speedway, though he did not finish the race. In fact, the North Carolina native failed to finish all three of his starts that season, not getting another chance to race at the top level until 1977.
But when driving for Cliff Stewart in 1981, Shepherd got his first competitive opportunity, scoring his first Cup win at Martinsville Speedway. He would go on to win three additional Cup races over the next 12 years.
During that span Shepherd started his Xfinity Series team. Between 1987 and 1988, the driver picked up four victories, including winning 25% of his starts in 1987 — all the wins of his Xfinity career.
Since then, Shepherd has owned a team some seasons, while going 1998-2007 without putting a single Xfinity car on track. From 2007 to 2012, he would compete in at least 16 races per season, mostly start and parking. That would continue until the fifth race of the 2020 season at Darlington Raceway, the first race back after a 10-week shutdown due to COVID-19.
In that race, Landon Cassill turned 35 laps for Shepherd, ultimately finishing in 38th, ahead of just one competitor.
Since Darlington, Shepherd Racing’s No. 89 car has been absent from the racetrack, having not shown up for another event in the 2020 season. Not being at the track has been mentally challenging for Shepherd.
"Not to be able to go [race] is not much fun," Shepherd recently told Jayski.com regarding his time away from the track. "I’m just looking forward to things turning around to where we can go back racing."
With the majority of races on the East Coast and NASCAR increasing the car count for the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series to 40 entries, in theory, Shepherd’s team could have continued to attend the track, make a few laps and call it a day. But that’s hard for any racer to do. Even if the team has start and parked 141 of its last 145 races.
Quite simply, Shepherd doesn’t want his team to show up just to take up a spot in the field any longer.
"I don’t want to do no more start and parks," Shepherd said. "Hopefully we can raise enough money to go and race. Landon is a good little driver. It’s terrible to ask someone like him to do a start and park.
"As racers we’re not made to do that. Reasons for doing it was trying to stay in racing and raise sponsorship [dollars] and enjoy the same thing we did. We’re hoping that gets turned around. We’re not giving up yet."
Prior to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Shepherd had planned to run Cassill for the entire 2020 season, despite not showing up for the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Since joining Shepherd Racing Ventures in 2018, Cassill has shown legitimate qualifying speed, earning a ninth-place starting position in the fall 2019 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Later that season, when having enough funding to run the entire race, the No. 89 finished 15th, its best result since 2009.
Shepherd said: "I couldn’t believe at Vegas, that little rascal got in the car and qualified ninth. That’s pretty good for the stuff that we have to go racing with."
With the 2021 Xfinity season set to begin in just over a month at Daytona, Shepherd doesn’t see the team returning to the track until it can acquire the proper amount of funding to be competitive.
"As of now, we don’t have sponsorship, don’t have [any] way of raising that amount of money to go there and do it," he said. "I just don’t want to go on and be labeled as a start and park [team]. Hopefully we’ll get this turned around. All we can do is keep trying and hopefully we’ll get somebody to step on board and go and do what we love to do.
"It’s just not fair to Landon that he goes in knowing he can’t run the full race. He’s a racer and he’s one of the best."
Shepherd stated in order to be competitive it would take a lofty $3 million in sponsorship. Over the past number of years, the No. 89 car has ran off a fraction of that amount. Because of that, the team start and parked in order to make a small profit.
"The only thing we were doing was trying to keep our name out there because you’ll find out quick if you don’t go then you’re forgotten about," Shepherd said. "That was the only thing we could do to keep our name out there."
Shepherd admitted while his team is looking to find funding, he doesn’t want to hold Cassill back from running elsewhere, noting, "We’re blessed just to be a part of his racing." During the 2020 season, Cassill competed in just the four races across all three national touring series (all with Shepherd), as he was replaced by Quin Houff at StarCom Racing prior to the Cup season beginning.
On the eve of the first Xfinity race at Martinsville in 14 years last October, Cassill tweeted out that Shepherd really wanted to run the event. Unfortunately, one month later the team announced Shepherd was diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
Shepherd admits he’s currently feeling better than he did a few months ago, but doesn’t spend as much time as he’d like at his race shop.
"The dizziness that I was having, it’s kind of went away," he said. "I’m pretty good, but can’t work real hard. I’m laying on the couch most of my life now, which isn’t good. That’s not me, I’m used to doing stuff."
Shepherd has competed in 1,027 races across the top three NASCAR national touring divisions, with the last coming on Sept. 7, 2019 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.