One of the biggest stories coming out of the NASCAR Xfinity Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was Landon Cassill finishing 15th in Shepherd Racing Ventures’ No. 89. It marked the first time Morgan Shepherd‘s team was running at the finish since 2013, and it was the team’s best performance since 2009.
For the first time since 2013, Shepherd Racing Ventures had the funding to run the full race. @landoncassill finished 15th for the team, it’s best finish since Las Vegas, 2009.@m_massie22 talked to team owner Morgan Shepherd after pic.twitter.com/Q6LLAO0VYk
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) November 17, 2019
The result came almost one year to the day of the first time Shepherd had put Cassill in the car. Prior to that, the 78-year-old Shepherd was the only person to drive his Racing For Jesus outfit since 2012, starting and parking in all but three occasions.
“We put him in at Homestead last year,” Shepherd said. “We’d had some problems with the car and had to take the rear end all apart, put some new seals in it. Anyways, [we were] just working our rear end off. Johnny Davis said, ‘Morgan, why don’t you get somebody else to qualify the car?’ because he could just see that I was beat. I said, ‘Who are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I think you might be able to get Landon.’
“I just knew him [Cassill] from seeing him at the track and talking with him some. But no, I didn’t really know what kind of person he was or anything. Because you know our values — we’re ministry-minded. If anybody uses bad language, they’ll be finding them another job because we can’t do that and stand for what we stand for.”
Davis, owner of JD Motorsports, had used Cassill as his driver several times over the years, and he had usually gotten more out of the car, scoring seven of JDM’s 41 top 10s. But even with that track record, it took a little longer before Shepherd finally reached out.
“So we worked all the way up to the time to qualify,” Shepherd said. “We had to do major changes. When I went out, it threw oil on the right rear wheel and it puts fluids on top of it, so everything was kind of a mess. And then we saw the oil was coming out so we knew what part of the problem was.”
Exhaustion set in for Shepherd, and he finally asked another driver to wheel his racecar. What happened next shocked many watching Xfinity qualifying.
“He [Cassill] said, yeah, he’d do it,” Shepherd said. “He didn’t even get a lap in the car and went out and qualified what? 23rd, 24th. It was 45 cars there. So that was pretty good to do that.”
Indeed, Cassill qualified the No. 89 in 24th place that weekend. It was the best qualifying result for the team since 2016 at Talladega Superspeedway and the best at a non-superspeedway since ISM Raceway in 2011. Cassill start-and-parked to finish 38th, as the funding still wasn’t there to run the full race.
Fast forward to the start of this season, and Shephard was behind the wheel again. He raced in six of the first 10 events but failed to qualify at Texas Motor Speedway. Come the next mile-and-a-half track, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Shepherd once again turned to Cassill to qualify the car, as more than 38 cars showed up. This time out, Cassill put the car 13th on the board.
“We are trying to build a team, and Landon’s, we feel like, a good person,” Shepherd said. “Every time we put him in the car, we’ve qualified good.”
Through the middle part of the year, Shepherd and Cassill split the driving duties of the No. 89, as Cassill was also running races for JDM. But in the 10 races following Charlotte, Cassill qualified no worse than 24th while Shepherd failed to qualify twice. Shepherd made his last start of the year in September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he qualified 33rd before start-and-parking for 36th. The next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was Cassill’s turn, and he put the car ninth in qualifying — the team’s best effort since 1995.
“I didn’t really know how much speed they had,” Shepherd said about his car. “It’s not supposed to be running as good as it is. It’s an older car. All these teams [we’re going against] have newer cars. Our aerodynamics on the bottom of the car makes a difference. There’s nothing done to this car aero-wise.”
Shepherd wasn’t even sure what year the car was, noting the newest it could be was a 2013 model Chevrolet. But age didn’t matter; Cassill was making the best of what he had at a level the team hadn’t seen in years. For the rest of the season, Cassill was named the driver of the No. 89.
At the fall race at Dover International Speedway, Cassill started and parked in 29th, the team’s best finish since 2013, also at Dover. Then, to close the year out at Homestead, one year after the relationship started, Cassill had the funding to run the whole race. He produced the team’s first top 15 in a decade, an incredible performance with an organization that rarely, if ever, finishes an event.
“Let’s face it, he’s a good racecar driver,” Shepherd said about Cassill. “This helps him over on the other side [Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series] when they don’t run good or don’t qualify good. They can’t blame it on Landon because you look what he does over here, he’s very competitive.
“This where he’s qualified with us, and we don’t have a top team, and we only have one full-time employee not counting myself. What we’re doing, we’re getting that working relationship on how to make the car better with what we got. He’s definitely showed every time that he can get the job done.”
Cassill is likely to return to the team next year, and Shepherd is hoping to raise the funding necessary to start-and-park even less.
“Well, we can operate cheaper than most your teams, well, any of the teams out there,” Shepherd said. “We’ve got a shop, got equipment — that’s one thing I’ve always done. If I needed something that’s gonna help the racecar, get it done faster and make it go faster, I’ve always done it.
“We’re looking at if we could raise $2.5 million, then we could probably do pretty good with it. Because obviously one of the first things you’ve got to do is hire people, try to get good people. They don’t come cheap.”
Raising $2.5 million is quite an inflation from when Shepherd first came into the sport, racing weekly at Hickory Motor Speedway. Shepherd noted the differences in costs and quality of equipment.
“Let me tell you something about back in the day. I started in ’67 and started building my own cars and stuff,” Shepherd said. “We could take very little money and do a whole lot with it. For instance, in 1969, I ran 21 races, I won 21 of them, and the left front tire was the same tire on the car all year long. I changed the left rear twice, and the right side, I changed them twice. I won 17 straight in that deal.
“You go to the Chevrolet place [back then], buy an LT1 350 Chevy engine for $735, and that’s aluminum manifold, well housing, had all the accessories. And now, you can’t hardly go out and buy one of the engines — well, we took our own engines then and built them ourselves — But now the RO7s, I don’t know what the dollar figure is on them now. I know when they first came out, it was $92,000 to buy just the parts to build your engine. And then, you had to do all the porting on the heads and all the machine work and everything on out.
“Now, I think you buy the parts for something like $62,000. But you still don’t have a built engine. And Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, they’re not gonna build one of their best engines and sell it to you, because they keep all their stuff, and Joe Gibbs, of course TRD does that. But none of them sell any engines unless it’s way outdated. They’ll sell them that way. You take what I did with an engine back then, I could take about $1,200 and I could go out and win races that paid $1,000. And tires were $25 apiece vs. they’re $2,400 a set now, and they won’t run a whole race. If everybody comes in and gets tires in 10 laps, you gotta come get tires, too, to be competitive. A whole different game.”
But still, the team is doing what it’s always done: survive, while many others have fallen by the wayside. It survived NASCAR cutting the Xfinity field sizes from 40 to 38 cars at the start of next season, and with the addition of Cassill, seems poised to survive the cut from 38 to 36 cars next year.
“Well, with what we’re doing, it don’t effect it,” Shepherd said about NASCAR trimming the field size. “We’re capable of, let’s see, I think 23rd or 24th in qualifying. The more you work together, the stronger you get.
“What I think and what they’re gonna do makes no difference. Yeah, I hate seeing them cut the field smaller, but it is what it is.”
Cassill may have been the thing that saved this understaffed race team with surprisingly fast cars. And Shepherd and Cassill have grown closer as this deal has gone on. Watch them before Xfinity qualifying and you’ll likely see them sitting side by side on the pit wall, chatting. When Cassill’s qualifying his Cup car for Starcom Racing, Shepherd, wife Cindy and the team are sitting in their modest hauler, cheering on the No. 00 — a car they have no stake in.
— Michael Massie (@m_massie22) October 5, 2019
“Of course, I’ve been around a long time,” Shepherd said. “And when I hire somebody at the shop, I’ll tell them, ‘There’s two things you’ve got to have in this life to get by. The first one is God, the second one is friends. If you have those two things, you can get by.
“That’s what’s got us by.”