When is age more than just a number? In NASCAR parlance when a 72-year-old loses control of his car and inadvertently wrecks the second-place driver, nearly half a century his junior.
As was the case in an accident involving Morgan Shepherd, 72, and Joey Logano, 24, Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Almost instantly a debate ensued whether a man born 56 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor should be allowed to race.
Yet while Shepherd may be a senior citizen and at an age where many are seeing their driving privileges reduced, he has in fact passed all of NASCAR's requirements to race. Be it at New Hampshire or any other track on the Sprint Cup schedule, which includes Daytona, where in February Shepherd failed to qualify.
If you can believe it, NASCAR only mandates that all drivers must pass a physical in the offseason, receive medical clearance and be over the age of 18 to be eligible to start a Cup race.
So how old is too old? Although Harry Gant and Bobby Allison both won races at age 50, that's still 22 years younger than Shepherd. As often occurs in these instances, perception often becomes reality. And the fact in this case is that a septuagenarian triggered a wreck that knocked out the second-place car driven by a 20-something.
After all, wouldn't it be in NASCAR's best interests to institute a maximum age limit in the name of safety before something catastrophic happens? Shepherd adamantly disagrees, and he isn't alone in expressing that sentiment.
Logano's car owner, Roger Penske, didn't point the finger at Shepherd's advancing age as the culprit for the wreck that knocked out his driver Sunday. Instead, Penske defended Shepherd and his right to compete in NASCAR's top series.
"Obviously he was not doing anything out there that he expected to have someone in an accident with him," Penske said. "That's the great thing about the sport, that if you want to tee it up here and bring your car and have a team, we let them run. So I don't feel bad about it other than the fact that Joey got knocked out."
Both sides have valid points. NASCAR is after all a meritocracy where those that can go fast enough qualify for the race. Those who can't get sent home early, as happened to Shepherd at Daytona.
Furthermore, how was Shepherd's wreck any different from several others that occurred this season where a driver simply lost the handle of their car and slid up the track? No driver is perfect. Compounded with the narrowness and slickness of a one-groove track like New Hampshire and it's a recipe that breeds almost certain calamity.
The issue at hand shouldn't just center on Shepherd's age -- a genuine concern -- but also why a driver who was 14 laps behind and running significantly slower times than the leaders was allowed to remain on the track.
At New Hampshire a driver can run upwards of 16 miles per hour slower than the leaders and still not be danger of being black flagged. In Shepherd's case, NASCAR never warned him about his slowing speed and never viewed him as a hazard.
"I'm not comfortable with that; I don't think they have any place out there if they're running that slow," Jeff Gordon said Monday during a teleconference with reporters. "I think at certain tracks where there's not a lot of falloff in the tire, then I think that minimum speed probably needs to be adjusted.
"I know that week in and week out there are certain cars that you're passing very, very often that you're questioning whether or not they're making minimum speed or if the minimum speed is really at the right pace."
Whether his lap times say so or not, a competitor multiple laps behind and continually in the way is a safety risk. Shepherd is experienced enough to know better that to impede faster cars, especially given the circumstances. Just as NASCAR should not allow a slow driver to putter around the track in a futile attempt to see the checkered flag.
Sunday wasn't a referendum on age; if anything the problem is the lack of common sense shown by all involved.