DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There are as many ways to lose at Daytona as there are cars which have driven it. But it's tough to imagine a more frustrating way to lose than Morgan Shepherd suffered in the summer of 1989.
Shepherd, driving the No. 75 Valvoline Pontiac, had the finest car on the track, no mean feat when the field included Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt. Shepherd knew he had the car to catch and pass leader Davey Allison. But as the laps wound down, Shepherd stayed tucked behind Allison, following … following … following … right up until Allison crossed the finish line first, taking the checkered flag.
What happened? Why didn't Shepherd take a run at Allison? Very simple: he lost count of the laps left.
"I had him set up, I knew exactly what I was going to do," Shepherd said Saturday morning at Daytona. "I was going to pass him on the outside. But my crew was talking over the radio nonstop, and I had Bill Elliott right behind me. I was so focused on that, that I missed the white flag."
Some perspective: Shepherd was 47 in that 1989 race, older than all but two of the drivers in Sunday's Daytona 500 (Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte). And yet, here he is in 2016, still driving at Daytona, still throwing himself and his car around the track at mindbending speeds.
Shepherd will start Saturday's Xfinity Series race in 26th place after posting a qualifying speed of 178.356 miles per hour. That will be 74-year-old Morgan Shepherd, still driving faster than virtually anyone in America can go. Pole-sitter Ty Dillon was three years away from being born during Shepherd's ill-fated Daytona race.
What keeps a man driving so fast at an age when all of his contemporaries are content to bounce grandkids on their knee? As befits a man with the name Shepherd, Morgan sees a higher purpose in his racing than mere competition or sponsor satisfaction. "I'm a Christian, and I'm a servant of God," he said. "We have the cross on our car. It's what guides us."
Shepherd is still spry, still has the firm-grip handshake of a man decades younger. To him, the reason is obvious: "I live my life by the two Ps: Passion and Purpose," he said. "Everyone has passion. But what everyone needs is a purpose. I'm trying to show that you can have purpose all through your life. It's why I'm 74 and I'm still driving 200 miles per hour, still dancing on my roller skates."
Oh yes, those skates. Prior to races, Shepherd takes to the track on his skates, delighting fans awake enough to catch a glimpse of him. Shepherd hasn't won a race at the national level since a 1993 victory at Atlanta, but that's not really the point: he's run 954 races, including Saturday's, in NASCAR's three national series. He's averaged 20 races a season over the last nine years.
At that pace, he'll hit 1,000 races sometime in 2018, a year when he'll turn 77. Is anyone betting against that happening?
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