Monday, November 18, 2019

XFINITY EXTRA: Tires from a longtime backer help Landon Cassill race Morgan Shepherd’s car to a stunning 15th-place finish at Homestead

Cassill's ride in Shepherd's car on the grid Saturday
Hidden behind the four-car championship battle in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 were a number of strong runs by the sport’s underdogs. B.J. McLeod put up the 12th-fastest lap in qualifying for his best starting spot in 2019, driving a new-look #4 KSDT & Company CPA Chevrolet for JD Motorsports. Brandon Brown gave the second Brandonbilt Motorsports team its best finish of the year by steering the #68 Vero Chevrolet to a 13th-place finish. Sam Hunt Racing had a sterling debut with K&N Pro Series East driver Colin Garrett. Though both team and driver had never made an XFINITY Series start, crew chief Brian Keselowski presided over a 15th-place qualifying run and 21st-place finish for the #26 Kraken Skulls Beard Oil Toyota.

But the biggest underdog story belonged to Shepherd Racing Ventures.

The ageless Morgan Shepherd and his single-car operation are no stranger to this website. Since Shepherd moved his underfunded Cup operation back to XFINITY in 2007, driver and team have made fewer and fewer races, and completed a dwindling number of laps. Such are the harsh realities of motorsports, where increasing costs and several field reductions are threatening to put grassroots teams like his out of business. The team has gone from running their backup as a “start-and-park” to parking the flagship #89, resulting in the team not even finishing a race since 2013. After they failed to qualify for 39 races from 2008 through 2013, the team started withdrawing from races, or not entering altogether.

But through it all, Shepherd has not lost his competitive fire, nor his faith - not only the faith that has kept “Racing For Jesus” on the hood of each #89, but faith he can keep his team going. He’s also celebrated his own racing career, running “throwback schemes” similar to cars he’d run in both Cup and XFINITY Series competition – purple-and-black, black-and-silver, black-and-gold. In 2017, when he celebrated his 50th anniversary season in NASCAR, I was at Darlington when he stayed out during pit stops to lead a lap. I asked why Shepherd stayed out on track, even though NASCAR no longer awarded points for leading. The driver smiled, and said “I’m almost 76, and we led the race here at Darlington.”  Nothing more needed to be said.

Near the end of last season, things were looking even more desperate. A practice crash at Texas destroyed his Chevrolet, and only the efforts of JD Motorsports allowed him to “start-and-park” the race in one of Johnny Davis’ backup cars. The Davis team then helped Shepherd prepare the only car he had left in the shop, a black car standing out from the fleet of red Camaros. When Shepherd drove his dually and small hauler to the next race at Phoenix, the truck broke down within sight of the track, and he had to scramble just to be able to sign in, never mind practice and qualify. Next came the Homestead finale, where 45 drivers were entered to attempt the 40-car field. With the team struggling to make races with shorter entry lists than that, and just 39th in opening practice, the team had to change their strategy.

It’s common today for people to dismiss “start-and-park” teams as organizations with inferior equipment, some going as far to say they shouldn’t even be there. The term has become such as scarlet letter in motorsports that it’s even attributed to teams that don’t exit a race by choice. But when Shepherd called up Landon Cassill, who was driving for start-up Cup team StarCom Racing, the results were immediate. Cassill put up the 24th-fastest lap in Round 1 of qualifying and settled on the spot in Round 2. Only the lingering lack of funding was to blame for a 38th-place finish, pulling the car behind the wall after 16 laps.

Fresh tires in the Shepherd pit.
Cassill is no stranger to getting “go-or-go-home” cars into races. His Cup career began getting teams like Gunselman Motorsports and Phoenix Racing into races, knowing the team had little more funding than needed to cut a quick lap in time trials. He once qualified a Gunselman car whose rear view mirror came loose during his timed lap. His qualifying prowess inspired his “Qualifying Challenge” on iRacing, where he put other sim racers under the pressures unique to single-car qualifying.

This season, Cassill has taken on a bigger role at Shepherd Racing Ventures, most often driving when the entry list is larger than 38 entrants. Coming into Saturday’s season finale at Homestead, nine of Cassill’s 16 XFINITY starts in 2019 came driving for Shepherd’s team, which he had not once failed to qualify all season. Shepherd’s own DNQs have also been down, in part due to the team’s limited schedule and the size of each entry list. Just three times this year Shepherd has missed the cut with a single withdrawal at Richmond. The driver also endured a case of bronchitis that stifled his run at Darlington, where he ran a new “throwback” scheme honoring his first Cup win at Martinsville in 1981. Even though he finished last that day, the driver still outlasted his car. All of this has been done with just one car and one engine, towed in one of the smallest haulers in the garage.

The road to Saturday’s Homestead race passed through Phoenix, where last Saturday the realities of the “start-and-park life” reared their ugly head once more. Cassill qualified 18th for the race, continuing a streak of impressive performances capped by a 9th at Las Vegas, but the team had no tires ready in their pit stall. Shepherd was far from the only one in this category – the additional entries fielded by Carl Long and Mario Gosselin also had no tires on hand that day. The consequences could be disastrous. Last month at Talladega, only the charity of two fans kept Jennifer Jo Cobb’s truck in the race after her only set was flat-spotted in a spin. At Watkins Glen’s XFINITY race last year, several underfunded teams had to sit on pit road, waiting for the track to dry as they couldn’t afford rain tires. Sure enough, as Cassill picked his way through the field, the right-rear tire started to go down. The #89 pulled behind the wall, resulting in the first last-place finish of Cassill’s career.

Cassill on pit road
But that same weekend, Shepherd hinted that he had a sponsorship deal in the works for Homestead. This was confirmed by mid-week as Dale and Sandra Dietrich provided the funding for multiple sets of tires at Homestead. The Dietrichs have backed Shepherd for several years – their names were on the lower quarter-panel of the #89 even at Phoenix. But with this backing, the Dietrichs now had their names in bold red print over the rear wheels, taking the place of sponsor Visone RV Parts. Cassill qualified fast again, putting the car 13th on the grid. But, unlike many runs in the past, the #89 didn’t pull out of line and voluntarily fall to the rear. This time, Shepherd said, they were going for a Top 15. They looked for the kind of turnaround that Timmy Hill gave Motorsports Business Management this August at Bristol, where one of Carl Long’s cars and engines finished 7th thanks to funding from Hattori Racing Enterprises that allowed the team to have enough tires.

In the early laps of Saturday’s race, Cassill slipped to 18th, then ran as high as 8th when he stayed out during caution-flag pit stops under the third caution. On Lap 91 of the 200-lap race, he was still on the lead lap and in the 13th spot. But then on Lap 119, the driver came over the radio saying his right-rear wheel might be loose. At the time, he was still on the lead lap and in the 16th spot. He was just about to come onto pit road on Lap 123 when the caution flag flew for Chase Briscoe’s accident. Just like that, he pitted under caution and returned to action, still on the lead lap. It was the last caution of the night. Cassill made his last stop under green on Lap 160, and cycled back onto the lead lap seven circuits later. He didn’t lose a lap on the track until two circuits later, when the leaders finally passed him with 31 to go.

Cassill finished 15th, the last car one lap down. Only twice since Shepherd rejoined the XFINITY circuit in 2007 had the #89 finished better – a pair of 13th-place showings at Talladega on April 26, 2008 and Las Vegas on February 28, 2009.

Next year comes another set of challenges as the NASCAR XFINITY Series scales back their fields from 38 cars to 36. But Shepherd Racing Ventures is already looking to tackle this challenge head-on. Cassill is reported to rejoin Shepherd at least part-time in 2020, but remains committed to his Cup effort with StarCom Racing.

Whatever the future holds for Shepherd and his underdog team, a statement was made on Saturday – this team is ready to race, and any amount of funding can put them right back in contention.

For more information on the team, and sponsorship opportunities, check out their page at:


Unknown said...

Great story. I am glad that you are out there filling in the blanks the other writers leave.

Unnamed said...

The guys that work there had to endure the hauler breaking down to and from all of the races except Bristol and darlington. They were stranded for days in Missouri when one of the trucks blew up. They went through 5 tow vehicles. Must be some dedicated individuals with understanding families. They are the true unsung hero’s.