The Frontstretch: Jason Keller Continues to Weather Changes in the Nationwide Series by Bryan Davis Keith -- Friday May 7, 2010

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Bryan Davis Keith: Talk about having to race your way into the field week in and week out. That’s got to be an adjustment.

Jason Keller: It is. We made a mock qualifying run, and typically you’ll stack that up whether you’re in the top 10, top 15. Of late, you look where you are, but you’re going “that’s a go-or-go homer, that’s a go-or-go-homer” and you have to gauge where you stack up against those guys. It’s a transition, but it’s all part of it. We’ve got ourselves in a pretty good hole, but we just have to try to be smart about it and race two races in practice. You race to go fast, but now every change we make I think to myself how is that going to change what we do in qualifying?

Keith: How much time in a given practice do you spend on qualifying vs. race trim?

Keller: The biggest thing is, there’s not a ton of things you can do in qualifying mode because we’re so limited on our tires. You’re kind of just fooling yourself, because even if you did ten mock qualifying runs, only one or maybe two would give valuable information. From that respect, I wish we had three, four, five sets of tires so that we could make sure we really were OK. But that’s the situation we’re in.

Keith: You’re carrying a ton of momentum from Talladega and the run you had there. What does that do for an operation such as this one?

Keller: It’s just nice for the guys, especially on my No. 35 team-they’ve been beat down so much-and myself. There’s so many questions, ‘is this OK?’ going through your mind, and the hours they put in, it was good for them. It proved to them that we can compete given the right situation, so I’m glad more than anything else that we got a good finish to show for it.

Keith: You’re 75 markers out of the top 30 and a locked-in spot in the field.

Keller: I think that we’re far enough away that we can’t really worry about that right now. We have to try to maximize every week, to get those top 15 runs. I thought we could go to places like Nashville and get those top 15 runs, and unfortunately we didn’t. I don’t think we can worry about that top 30 yet. If it was one guy, I’d be focused on that one good, and if he had trouble I could go up there. But there’s a number of guys I’ve got to leapfrog over just to get in line, so I’m not really concentrating on that. I’d like to be closer, I’d love to have two or three mulligans in this deal, but we don’t. I feel that if we gain points every week, we’ll be OK. Now one of the Roush cars is going to be in the top 30 quickly, now that they’ve put a veteran driver in there, so we’ll see how it works out pretty quick.

Keith: This deal came together very close to Daytona. Coming from more established teams such as Baker/Curb Racing, what’s the challenge been like bringing Tri-Star Motorsports up to speed?

Keller: Well, you just have to be confident in what you bring to the table. We missed a couple of races and I was unable to qualify. That’s when you’ve got to take a real gut check and see is this really worth it? Then you go to Talladega, and we run decent and get a really good finish. I don’t want to put everything into that Talladega run, but it did show that in the right situation we can compete. What I’ve had to do different is just approach it differently. I think right now it’s my job to get into the race and into the top 15 is what we need to focus on. At Baker/Curb, if I wasn’t challenging at least close to the top 10, I was disappointed.

Keith: You’ve got a veteran teammate in Tony Raines. How much does that help you?

Keller: The unfortunate thing about the way this deal is setup is our team got started so late, we really haven’t been able to help each other. They already have their cars, while some of our cars are not the same. We’ve had to go out and buy some cars. What we’re doing really hasn’t been able to help them. It’s been nice to be able to talk to Tony and say what did you feel, etc. knowing he’s not going to lie to me, but on the performance side…right now we’re operating under the same roof, but until we get more uniform equipment we really can’t help each other.

Keith: The COT is starting to get close, and there’s a lot of teams still unsure on their cars. Where does the No. 35 team stand?

Keller: We’ve been able to get some cars, and hopefully you’ll get to see one of us down at the test. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve got to be smart and try our best to do well at Darlington, Dover, those places. That COT is going to put a big strain on us.

Jason Keller (left), Kenny Wallace, Derrike Cope, and Mike Wallace were once among the Nationwide Series’ elite, but Keller says that’s all in the past as these small teams, like his, struggle simply to survive (photo courtesy of The Hot Lap’s Dak Dillon).

Keith: Are you hearing any concerns in the garage with regard to the new car?

Keller: I think the big teams are going to have lots of cars. Unfortunately I think what it’s going to do is to separate the field even more. I did a lot of testing for Evernham back a couple of years ago, and I know from that test program that every version of the car was so superior to the one before it, and we’re going to have to buy cars that are already behind the versions they’ve got going. How far behind are they, we don’t know. We just know that there’s going to be a large gap come Daytona. Hopefully we’ll make it to Daytona. Our whole intent is to make it to Daytona and be good, too, but there’s a lot of work to be done before then.

Keith: What is your current financial situation looking like?

Keller: Every week they ask me to come back and race, that’s all I can go off of. Our guys are doing everything they can. We’re not able to buy the full allotment of tires, we’re not being able to do a lot of things that even the two Roush cars do that we’re competing against to get in the top 30. We’re not being able to do anything close to what they’re doing. We’ll go as long as we possibly can. Our intent is to go all the way. But I’ve been in this business long enough to know that unless we get some sort of sponsorship on here, that that intent could change. I’m not saying it’s going to, but it could change. Being out of the top 30, I think it would be easier knowing every week that you’re going to be in and knowing that you’re at least going to get that. But not having that net, it’s kind of tough.

Keith: Given the financial constraints, does start and park become an option?

Keller: Not for me. For this team, maybe it could be. But I’ll tell you one thing for sure right now, it’s not for me. If we don’t have some intent to race, it’s not for me. I’m not going to take time from my family to be a part of that.

Keith: As evidenced with a lot of recent firings, there’s lots of pressure on development drivers these days. As a veteran, what’s your take on the state of driver development?

Keller: I think what’s happened is that…racing goes in cycles. You look back and the cycle was I’ve got to go get an open-wheel guy. Then you get some guys in here that are very young, and you think I’ve got to get two or three of those guys. What you don’t have now, especially in the Nationwide Series, is an overabundance of sponsorship. When you start getting Jack Roush having to run his cars over here unsponsored, it’s become now we’re running unsponsored and we’re tearing up equipment. Not to say that the driver development thing is a thing of the past, but there are very few Joey Logano’s out there. He’s an exception to the rule.

I would hope that the cycle will come back around to where these owners don’t have money to tear up equipment developing these guys, and look at a Jason Keller and say Jason Keller won’t tear up our stuff. I’m not saying I’m looking to leave where I am, but you look at the Mike Blisses of the world, the Jason Kellers of the world, they’re looking a lot better than they did a couple years ago. Having to run with less money, being able to burn fewer sets of tires, not being able to do the things we used to be able to do. Maybe a Mike Bliss or a Jason Keller, there’s a lot more value there now than there was.

Keith: Sponsorship, as your team knows, is at a premium right now. Is there anything that can be done to make Nationwide sponsorship more attractive?

Keller: I don’t know, because the sponsorship packets that the midpack teams used to take…even when I was at ppc Racing running the best of my career, we took sponsorship packages the bigger budget teams wouldn’t take. And we were still winning races. Now, those guys are taking those sponsors, and there’s not a whole lot left over there. There’s tire money, there’s very small things, but it’s harder and harder to find a decent amount of money to put on these race cars. Is there a way to fix it? I don’t know. I mean, you could say something like everyone buys four sets of tires instead of six, but is that going to make it cheaper?

It’s going to cut some off somewhere, but is that going to make it something where you can do it on the sponsorship that we’ve got? Not really. With the exception of maybe the Hefty car, past the top 12, 15 not a lot of teams have a lot of money. Now some of these drivers are bringing their own money packages with them. But if you’re not linked with a sponsor that says I want this guy to represent my company…

Keith: Would opening testing be helpful?

Keller: If they opened testing up right now, it wouldn’t help our team, because we don’t have the money to buy the extra tires and people to get us to the racetrack. Now it would help the bigger teams, these bigger teams that have rookies, get stronger. But do I want those rookies to get stronger? Probably not, because I’ve got to race with those guys. I don’t know if that would be a fix. There’s going to be X amount of expense to operate a team, low budget or high budget. There’s always going to be tires you have to buy, the cost of travel. I mean, you can drive to more races than you fly, there’s a lot of small things, but can those get you to running a team on $1 million instead of three or four million? I don’t really think so.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

Photography for this article was provided by Dak Dillon of The Hot Lap

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