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Behind the wheel no longer, Kenny Shepherd focuses on preserving smaller tracks

Kenny Shepherd doesn't usually play favorites, but this time he couldn't help it.

From the comfort of his living room two weeks ago, Shepherd watched the Toyota SaveMart 350 unfold at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway.

For the first time in 15 years, Shepherd witnessed the race on a television, instead of from behind the wheel of a car.

Still, the former driver found himself wrapped up in the drama.

"I was howling for David Gilliland to hold off Jeff Gordon for second place," Shepherd said. "I worked a lot with him, as I did with race winner Kyle Busch.

"So I took a lot of pride in the race. It was very rewarding watching the guys succeed."

Busch's victory capped an emotionally turbulent two-week stretch in which Shepherd came to grips with the fact that he wouldn't be racing at his favorite track.

Wishing to focus his energy on his company Short Track Management and the work it has done with the Madera Speedway, Shepherd made the tough call not to participate in the race.

That decision was made more difficult when he was asked to go up to Sonoma and share his expertise on the track a week before the race.

While walking NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Travis Kvapil and David Ragan through what Shepherd called his "home course," a torrent of emotions began to overtake Shepherd.

"I had every opportunity to pack up and go back east and race, but my priorities are different now," Shepherd said. "Being back at the track was tough, though.

"The reality is, how many boxers do you see that still have that fire in their belly?

"Look at Evander (Holyfield).

"How many boxers get in the ring one too many times?

"I keep looking to see if I've lost a step."

Unfortunately for Shepherd, it doesn't appear he has.

"He's had a lot of success on that track. And when he went up for testing, he was the fastest driver there," Shepherd's father-in-law Tom Barber said.

"I know he's probably had a lot more second thoughts about it than anyone knows."

After Shepherd's performance during testing, offers started rolling in for one more shot at Infineon.

It was appealing at first, but the more Shepherd considered it, the more he decided he couldn't race.

"The sponsors said, 'Let's do a five-race package,' " Shepherd said. "The problem is, I had to do six weeks of promoting for the one event.

"It would have hurt the efforts we've been making in Madera."

So instead, Shepherd packed up the family and attempted to take his mind off of things with a trip to Disneyland.

The Shepherds returned home on the day of the race.

"The time has come for me to close that chapter," Shepherd said. "We've been very successful promoting these tracks and the young drivers.

"It's where I want to focus all of my energy."

As much as Shepherd loves driving, it's his passion for the sport of racing in general that ultimately kept him off of the track.

After honing his own craft on the Merced Speedway as an up-and-coming driver, Shepherd is determined to help preserve the small community tracks -- like Merced and Madera -- so the next generation of driver can follow his path.

"Right now, racing is two fold," Shepherd said. "Its become so big at the front end and very weak at the back end.

"Some of these mom and pop race tracks were closing and I got very interested in it.

"In 2006, I started getting involved and now I'm trying to help keep them going."

Madera Speedway general manager Pat Noyd said Shepherd has been instrumental in the track's revitalization.

"Without Kenny, it wouldn't be there," Noyd said. "He's taken all the energy he had from his racing days and put it all into his promoting.

"One day he wants to have several short tracks. It's why he named his company Short Track Management."

With that being the ultimate goal, Shepherd is able to walk away from the car.

Just don't expect the longing to fade when NASCAR's circuit makes its annual swing back to Infineon.

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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