In an interview I did with Jeremy Clements earlier in the summer, the driver of the No. 50 car dropped a line on me that to this day has stuck at the forefront of my mind when covering the Nationwide Series:
“It doesn’t even matter if you can drive anymore.”
Now that’s not entirely true. The drivers at the forefront of the Nationwide Series in 2009 certainly have considerable talent behind the wheels of a stock car. It takes talent to win 15-plus races in just over a season and a half like Kyle Busch (and in his case, equally so a talented crew chief with a vast budget). It takes talent to become the first driver to actually last a full season at JR Motorsports, like Brad Keselowski has done. And it definitely takes talent to win races in this era of NNS competition like Jason Leffler has managed to do with Braun Racing or Mike Bliss with Phoenix Racing.
But Clements’s point rings true in how much the importance of talent really has dropped off in the Nationwide ranks. Case in point; with Keselowski expected to leave the No. 88 car for Penske Racing at the end of 2009, his rumored replacement has been the prospect that’s been first off everyone’s tongue all season… Kelly Bires.
Alright, Bires fans out there, don’t go grabbing your pitchforks, this isn’t meant to put down his talent in the cockpit. As I wrote back in April, anyone who’s able late in a race to take “Concrete Carl” himself to task for a position in the top five on a cement track has got something special. And Bires is a highly talented racecar driver, one who’s abilities are (and rightfully so) respected by both the media and his fellow drivers in the garage.
However, is Bires really so much better than every other of the hundreds of prospects knocking on the door of the Nationwide Series? How has a driver who suffered through a multitude of DNFs in 2008 and lost his sponsor suddenly become so hot a commodity that every major name imaginable, from Kevin Harvick to Todd Braun to now apparently Dale Earnhardt Jr., has Kelly Bires on the brain?
If one is to take a look at the results sheet, the numbers don’t do this sudden NNS fad justice. Bires certainly showed great promise in his 2008 NNS campaign, but in terms of actually putting top 10s on the board, his numbers were no better than Michael McDowell’s during his tenure behind the wheel of the No. 47 for the first half of 2009 (Bires scored six top 10s in 35 races, McDowell five in 24). And yes, Bires has been very impressive in his limited stint in the KHI No. 33 car this season… but again, those results are quite comparable to those put up by that team’s former development project, Cale Gale (Bires has two top 10s with the team, Gale had three and a pole). But while McDowell has moved on from JTG Daugherty Racing through a number of lower-tier rides (he’s with K-Automotive as of this weekend), and Gale has all but disappeared from the NASCAR scene (wasn’t he supposed to be racing in Canada or something?), Bires has stayed at the front of the picture, both in the media and the garage.
And all this, despite the fact he’s only completed three races in 2009.
On paper, much like his results aren’t that distinguishable from fellow prospects McDowell and Gale, it’s really hard to explain this affection with a particular Nationwide prospect. What’s more, Bires finds himself in position to take over a full-time ride at JRM despite the fact that the team had the 2008 Rookie of the Year under their banner last year (Landon Cassill) but have not run him even once in 2009 due to sponsorship woes. Huh?!
Comparing Bires to Cassill, again the results on track are all but indistinguishable (Cassill had five top 10s in 19 starts last season). And it’s certainly got nothing to do with marketability… because that Cassill is a trip. I can still, nearly 11 months later, recall some of his one-liners from a Klondike press conference at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last October.
So what is it? What has Bires done so right that even an ARCA standout like McDowell, a feel-good working man like Gale and a sponsor’s dream like Cassill couldn’t? You’re not going to find the answer on the track, or behind the mic.
It all comes down to knowing influential people. And here, there are few drivers outside the Cup garage who’ve got anything on the young Bires.
Bires entered 2009 having been yanked from Brad Daugherty’s No. 47 car due to a lack of sponsorship (and to the public dismay of Daugherty, who on-the-air on more than one occasion stressed that his team was devastated to have to let Bires go). And while that didn’t translate into a lot of great rides early on (Bires looked as woefully off the pace as Dexter Bean in trying to qualify BlackJack Racing’s No. 51 Cup car for the Daytona 500 and followed that up by start-and-parking Braun Racing’s No. 10 car at Fontana), it meant that Bires was still getting mentioned on TV… meaning that the many owners who have all but second homes with the race media (Daugherty, Kevin Harvick, Phil Parsons, etc.) all had Bires on their radar screens.
I can only speculate that these connections helped land Bires his limited races with KHI (which were fully sponsored) and his start-and-park efforts with MSRP Motorsports and JTG, but come on…is that really that much of a stretch?
If there’s anything for certain, it’s that when it comes to driver development, hell even searching for a ride these days, it truly is “out of sight, out of mind.” And vice versa. Need proof of that? How in the world did Kenny Hendrick come out of nowhere to land a full-time deal with Smith-Ganassi Racing to start 2009? This is the same Hendrick whose 2008 campaign was nothing but start-and-parking, the same Hendrick who’d last run a NNS race to completion in 2004. Meanwhile, why was Mike Wallace on the sideline for much of 2009… until he showed up a few times in the JD Motorsports No. 0? Now look at him…he’s full-time for the rest of the season, thanks to Danny O’Quinn’s sudden exit.
And Bires, not just because of what’s he done behind the wheel (others out there have managed to score top fives and 10s in limited schedules), but because of who he’s had pushing his name, has managed to stay in sight and in mind, which for a youngster is invaluable in this competitive era. With an owner who is literally one of the Nationwide Series’ faces every Saturday spewing his praises on camera, and another influential owner giving him rides in the only start-and-park cars in the field to get TV time (watch a qualifying broadcast and you’ll see Terry Cook, Dave Blaney, etc. more often than naught), it suddenly becomes crystal clear why Harvick has seemingly forgotten Gale. Why Earnhardt Jr., has seemingly forgotten Cassill.
And why Clements’s remarks such as “it doesn’t even matter if you can drive anymore” mean more than they used to.
There have been, as long as I’ve been following the sport, examples of drivers who are in their rides solely because they’ve got family or a sponsor paying their bills. Kyle Krisiloff lasted well beyond his stay thanks to his Clabber Girl sponsorship, and every NNS weekend in 2009 fans have seen the one-man wrecking ball that is John Wes Townley tearing up more Fords because Zaxby’s keeps putting their name on the hood.
The difference is, it’s not just the guys who don’t have the talent who are getting the breaks based on who they know. Nowadays, even talented drivers can’t drive their way into this sport.
Some may think it a travesty, some may blow it off as the way it’s always been. But I’ll tell you one thing: If I’m Cassill, my first thought wouldn’t be to find a competitive ride and post consistent results. I’d be calling Phil Parsons and asking to start-and-park.
Tell me how reducing talented guys like Bires to having to do that to make it is a good thing.