NASCAR: Shepherd/Logano contact creates more questions than answers

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Two days after one of NASCAR’s youngest full-time competitors got collected by its oldest competitor – part-time or otherwise – there’s more questions than answers that must come out of the contact.

On Lap 212 on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the AutoTrader.com Ford driven by Team Penske’s Joey Logano got looped around by Morgan Shepherd, in the underfunded Circle Sport Chevrolet, entering Turn 3. Logano’s 24; Shepherd is three times his senior, age 72.

The resulting Logano interview and the TV camera angle didn’t give a great deal away, other than it showed Shepherd moving up the road slightly and enough to contact Logano. There’s not enough shown to potentially alleviate Shepherd of blame; say the angle at which he entered lower into Turn 3 was enough to send the car up the road.

An unlikely war of words has followed.

Logano, in his immediate post-race interview: “To get taken out by the slowest car – I feel like there should be a driver’s test when you get out in a Cup car and make sure you know how to drive it before you [race] one. But I don’t know, I guess there isn’t.”

And Shepherd, defending himself, via NASCAR.com: “Maybe he didn’t realize how wicked loose I was; I was having to tiptoe through the corner.”

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton defended Shepherd and told reporters post-race, to the letter of the law, Shepherd was all clear to race.

“He’s been approved for decades,” he said. “You take a physical at the beginning of the year. You pass your physical. You pass inspections with your car, you qualify for the race and you run the event. He met everything he needed to meet.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t guard against questions raised in the approval process to race.

So, a few questions I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering as a result of this contretemps:

  • What is involved in the physical beyond standard procedure? How are reaction times determined? Is there an eyesight check?
  • Why do smaller teams, such as Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing operation, look for a driver like Shepherd to fill in at this type event instead of a younger driver, even one who could bring money?
  • Why does Shepherd, who’s been accomplished in the past, but in the 1980s and 1990s, want to subject himself and his reputation to this kind of criticism? What does he have to gain other than setting the record for being a septuagenarian on-track in the highest division of NASCAR?
  • If Shepherd’s car was as loose as he claims, why was a call not placed to the No. 33 team to pit?
  • How does NASCAR guard against this level of accident – where regardless of age, someone running so far off the pace could potentially be hazardous – could affect the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Especially in the new elimination format where there are fewer races to advance.

Answers from the sanctioning body need to be forthcoming fairly soon, and it would probably behoove NASCAR in the offseason, if not sooner, to examine its criteria for both minimum speed requirements and performing more stringent tests on older drivers seeking to compete.

Jack Miller wins MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his points slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.