Bittersweet Homecoming As Keller Nears 500 Starts
Ask Jason Keller (#35 Upillar.com Chevy) to describe his season to date. He’ll say it’s been a “love-hate relationship.”
The last two weeks he’s finished fourth at Talladega Superspeedway (his best finish since a fourth at Gateway International Raceway in 2008) and 14th at Richmond International Raceway. That represents the “love.” But the previous seven races certainly catered to the “hate.”
The season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, where he didn’t qualify, and DNQs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway were avenues of frustration for Keller and his Tri-Star Motorsports team.
Following the 2009 season, Keller, the all-time starts leader in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (now at 498) needed only eight starts to become the first driver to reach 500 in series history. But he also needed a team. Tri-Star owner Mark Smith approached Keller to drive his #35 Chevy not long before the start of this season. However, the veteran driver was with a new team and a new crew chief in Bryan Berry. The learning curve started out rather steep, and the team was on the outside looking in when it came to the top 30 in owner points, forcing the group to qualify on time at every race.
“We were in such a hole with equipment as much as anything … people, the whole feeling of things,”
Keller said. “Bryan was Brendan Gaughan’s (#62 South Point Hotel & Casino Toyota) crew chief last year and there aren’t many drivers more opposite than him and me. I like the bottom, Brendan likes the top. It took Bryan and me a little time to get to know how each other worked. But I was really excited at Richmond where we unloaded and were 20th in practice, qualified 20th and raced in top 15 all night long. That’s competitive. With that we can build on something.”
In addition to the love-hate description, “bittersweet” also can be added, especially this week. Despite those first two DNQs to start the season, Keller, 40, a native of Greenville, S.C., who resides in Travelers Rest, was on pace to have his 500th start come Friday night at Darlington Raceway. That was until he missed the cut at Texas. Now, he’s aiming for #499 at home, and hoping to seal the deal at Dover International Speedway next week.
“Not getting my 500th start at Darlington hurts in a lot of ways,” he said. “I raced go-karts down the street from the track and remember thinking that I was going to race there someday. But I do have great memories. I was in the infield when Bill Elliott won the Winston Million in 1985. I must have hit the wall four times in my first five laps in my first race there in 1993, but I settled in and followed the line used by Robert Pressley and Harry Gant, two of the very best to go around that track. And I finished second to Jeff Burton in 2002.
“Some places you go, you’re just comfortable. My family can be with me at Darlington. As many races as I’ve raced in the Nationwide Series, Darlington’s still a special place to me. I hope I can bring this new confidence and the comfort that I feel at Darlington to the race Friday night.”
NASCAR Nationwide Series Start Leaders Top Five All-Time
1. Jason Keller* 498
2. Kenny Wallace* 462
3. Tommy Houston 417
4. David Green 396
5. Elton Sawyer 392
* - Active
Is Edwards On Comeback Trail?
Brad Keselowski has opened up a lead of 59 points in the series standings, and has somehow done it quietly.
He has back-to-back wins, and hasn’t finished outside the top five since a season-opening 13th-place finish at Daytona .
Yet, a 59-point cushion has never looked so uncomfortable.
It’s not that no one believes Keselowski has the skill to pull off a surprise championship. Consecutive wins on completely different layouts (giant Talladega and short-track Richmond) are proof enough that he has the game.
The hitch lies in those chasing him, namely past champions Kyle Busch (#18 Z-Line Designs Toyota), Carl Edwards (#60 COPART Ford) and Kevin Harvick, along with future star Justin Allgaier.
The truth of the matter: one false step by Keselowski, and his lead vanishes in a blink.
The key might be Edwards. Though fifth in points, he could be viewed as if in third place. Prior to this season, both Harvick (in second) and Busch (third) stated they would not run a full NASCAR Nationwide Series season.
Edwards is running full time, and needs a big turnaround to become a championship contender once again. The 2007 series champion finally got back on track at Richmond, finishing fifth after runs of 30th at Texas and 35th at Talladega, the previous two events.
Darlington, though, is a question mark for Edwards. He has never won there, though he has two third-place results in the last three races.
One unfortunate statistic does stand out for Edwards. In his series career, he has only two last-place finishes. One came at Texas in 2006. The other came at Darlington in 2008.
Overall at Darlington, Edwards has a Driver Rating of 87.0, an Average Running Position of 17.5, five Laps Led, 23 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 55.7%. Only his Fastest Laps Run figure ranks in the top 10 at Darlington.
Young Penske Duo Talk Of The Series
Penske Racing is making its case as the team to beat this year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Owner Roger Penske has put together one of the hottest driver combinations in the series with points standings leader Brad Keselowski (#22 Ruby Tuesday Dodge), and Justin Allgaier (#12 Verizon Wireless Dodge). Keselowski comes off consecutive wins at Talladega and Richmond while Allgaier posted his first career win at Bristol in March and is ranked fourth in the standings.
Keselowski has had a powerful start. In the first nine races, he’s posted two wins, eight top fives and two poles. Despite two penalties that took away 50 total driver points, his lead is now 59 points over second-place Kevin Harvick (#33 Rheem Chevy).
“We’ve been fired up all year long. This team wants to win,” said Keselowski. “It keeps us working hard. It keeps everybody in the shop digging, but we still have to keep working forward. We can’t be happy where we’re at.”
That mentality was showcased at Richmond, where Keselowski dominated, leading 189 of 250 laps and posting his first perfect Driver Rating (150.0). His average finish this season is fourth.
But it’s not all Keselowski all the time at Penske. In addition to his win, Allgaier has three top fives and five top 10s in his second full season in the series.
Allgaier made his Darlington track debut last season, starting 16th and finishing fifth.
Keselowski has three starts at Darlington, landing his best finish (11th) at the 1.366-mile track last season.
Kenseth Rights Ship, Helps Show Rookie The Way
When the NASCAR Nationwide Series pulls into Darlington, there will be one owner that is almost synonymous with Victory Lane.
Jack Roush, the longtime Roush Fenway Racing leader, tops the series in wins at Darlington with 15. And Friday night there’s a good chance that total could increase to 16.
Roush has taken four different drivers to Victory Lane at Darlington in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, including former series champion Greg Biffle (#27 Red Man Moist Snuff Ford), Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth (#16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford).
After a rocky start for Raybestos Rookie Colin Braun that included five DNFs in his first seven races, Roush asked Kenseth to take over the wheel last week at Richmond so Braun could gather himself. Kenseth registered the #16 team’s first top 10 of the season.
Among active drivers, it’s Kenseth who leads in wins at Darlington with three, including last season’s event.
"I'm excited to get back in the #16 this weekend at Darlington, especially considering the success we had there in last year's race,” said Kenseth, himself the owner of 245 career series starts along with 25 wins.
“Darlington is a track that’s fun to race and always puts on a good show for the fans. Hopefully we’ll be able to get another good finish and get this car back into the top 30 in owner points,” he said. The #16 is two points out of 30th.
Kenseth just seems to have a knack for the place. In 15 starts at Darlington, he’s got three wins, nine top fives and 12 top 10s.
Both Kenseth and rookie teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (#6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford) will have to qualify on time to make the race. This will be Stenhouse Jr.’s first series attempt at the daunting egg-shaped oval.
NNS Etc.: Darlington Edition
►Gaughan & Parrott On Rebound
One could say that Brendan Gaughan is reverting back to his days as a basketball player at his alma mater, Georgetown. Despite a tough past couple of weeks, he’s “rebounding.”
After a two-race slump that saw his average finish dip to 24.0, Gaughan finished ninth at Richmond and jumped three spots in the standings to ninth in the top 10. That’s his best ranking since he finished ninth in the final standings last year.
“We’ve had an up-and-down season so far, that’s for s u r e , ” s a i d
Gaughan. “Like our teammate Steve Wallace (#66 5-Hour Energy Toyota), we’ve had a lot of instances where we’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; Talladega’s a good example of that. (He finished 27th after getting caught up in an accident.)
“With all of the help from Toyota and an experienced crew chief like Brad Parrott on board, our cars are fast, but we still have a way to go.”
Working with a driver like Gaughan is Parrott’s M.O. — he’s worked with many drivers new to the series. “A lot of it deals with the communication between Brad and I,” Gaughan said.
“As the year goes on, that will get nothing but better. I think that the little bit of success we’ve had lately is a product of that communication improving.”
NASCAR’s season-to-date Loop Data shows Gaughan has posted two of his career–best top 10 Driver Ratings in the last five races (88.8 at Nashville Superspeedway and 97.2 at Phoenix International Raceway).
Gaughan will be making his second career series start at Darlington. Last year he qualified 15th and finished 19th.
“We had a really good car there last year, even after I wrecked our primary car in practice,” he said. “We started from the back and picked up 15 spots in the first 10 laps. Then we ended up having a slow leak in one of the tires and got lapped.
“Once we got that figured out, we were just as fast as the top-five again for most of the race. Hopefully we can avoid those problems this time around and continue the little bit of momentum that we have right now.”
►Top 30 Has Big Players On The Bubble
This season the NASCAR Nationwide Series has had close competition from top to bottom.
Heading to Darlington Raceway, only 54 points separate 27th-place owner Todd Braun with drivers Kelly Bires / Jason Leffler (#10 ABF Freight Toyota) and 32nd-place owner Jack Roush with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The team walking the line this week is Pat MacDonald with Michael McDowell (#81 iamsecond.com Dodge) behind the wheel.
McDowell has an average finish of 26.0 this season. He has made only one start at Darlington and finished 33rd.
► Next: Dover International Speedway
The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to Dover International Speedway for the Heluva Good! 200, the 11th race on the 2010 schedule.
The action kicks off Friday, May 15. ABC has the broadcast beginning at 2 p.m. ET.
Brad Keselowski took advantage of an incident between polesitter Joey Logano and his teammate and reigning series champion Kyle Busch (#18 Z-Line Designs Toyota) on a late restart to overtake the duo to win his first of four races of the season.
Next Race: Royal Purple Synthetic Oil 200 presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts
The Place: Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile paved)
The Date: Friday, May 7
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Distance: 200.8 miles / 147 laps
TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio (Locally on WEGX-FM, 92.9)
2009 Winner: Matt Kenseth
2009 Polesitter: Kyle Busch
Schedule prior to race day (times ET): Friday, May 7–Practice, 8:30 a.m.-11a.m. (Only Practice); Qualifying, 3:10 p.m.