With a series record 488 career starts, Jason Keller has had a solid career in NASCAR’s Nationwide division that’s now lasted nearly two decades. Quietly, the 39-year-old is enjoying one of the best seasons of any Nationwide-only driver in 2009, with eight top 10s in 31 starts his highest total in five years. Eighth in points, he even has an outside shot to be one of the top five invited to stick around for the season-ending banquet at the end of the year.
The way the season is gone should be leaving this veteran grinning from ear to ear. But with primary sponsor Kimberly Clark making a shocking announcement they’ll move up to the Cup Series in 2010, that’s turned Keller’s smile upside down as he worries about his future in this tough economy. Our Bryan Davis Keith sat down with Keller to see how the sponsorship hunt was going, how he expects the future to play out, and discover what he would do if made King of the Nationwide Series for a day.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: You have run a lot better the last few weeks. What’s going on? With a number of top 10s, you’ve really seemed to move up the charts.
Jason Keller: Well, what people don’t realize is at the beginning of the year, we were pretty much new together. We ran some races last year, but we kind of took what they had, and Todd [Gordon] came over with me as crew chief, and then again we [switched to] running Fords. It takes time to put things together. I think we’ve worked on some programs that have helped our balance, and we’re now getting more consistent towards that top 10, and that was kind of our goal all along. We started out pretty strong, didn’t keep that up through the summer months… but glad we’re seeing stuff now.
Keith: Obviously, it does take time, but 2010 is now looming and it looks a little unsure. Where do you stand on 2010?
Keller: A little unsure? You know, we’re really unsure. Kimberly Clark has decided to go in another direction, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in a lot of places. I’m not trying to divert your question, but we’ve just got to keep running good and hope something will happen, for the team, for me, show that this is a sellable product and that we can get it done. I don’t know… it’s just a lot of uncertainty.
Keith: You’ve been around the Nationwide Series a long time, while Kleenex and Kimberly Clark have been around the Nationwide Series a long time. Does it say anything that all of a sudden, now they’re pulling out and going to the Cup Series? Is there something bigger there?
Keller: I don’t want to think it’s anything bigger over there, it’s just directions change for companies. It’s really been a rarity that a company has stayed in the series for as long as they have. To try and read too much into it, I don’t think so. Now I will say this, everyone that I had worked with before at Kleenex is no longer there, so there’s a different mindset, there’s a lot of turnover in the company, and they went through a big reorganizing, and I’ve not dealt with anyone that’s there. So from that standpoint, it’s just a different direction. They see a different direction, and that’s where they’re going.
Keith: The Nationwide Series is also going in a new direction, they’ve got a new car coming next year. What are your thoughts on the car and its implementation?
Keller: Well, I like the safety aspect of [the new car]. My biggest concern is making sure everyone can afford to absorb the new car costs. You know, I think if you ask the majority of the teams in here, they’re having trouble selling sponsorship as is. Now I’m hearing estimates that it’s going to cost teams next year half a million, up to a million dollars just to run the four [CoT] races. So you start putting that on top of the lack of funding we already have… it’s just hard to absorb. Is it time for that? It’s always time to add safety, it’s always really time to progress, but I don’t know if it’s really time to absorb that cost.
Keith: Is there anything NASCAR can be doing to cut those costs? Obviously it’s gotten expensive to run this series, as we see in the back of the garage.
Keller: I would have to take a look at everything. A lot of times what NASCAR does is they’ll create a testing ban. [They’ll] say we’re going to save teams money by not testing. Well, that’s twofold, because now there’s more Cup guys having to run the Nationwide race, and take away money from us as sponsors, points and such – so is that the best thing? I don’t know. The shorter the weekends, the better it is for us. Some of these teams are coming to these one day shows, show up on Friday and race on Saturday. There’s just a lot of little things that I think, at the end of the year, could save a team a million dollars or so.
And we’ve got to make it as cheap as possible, because the sponsors have to be able to afford it.
Keith: We’ve got a lot of teams in the back of the garage, starting and parking, some trying to keep going, some for profit. Do you see that as a problem that needs to be addressed, or is it something that will fix itself?
Keller: Is it a problem? Yeah, we don’t want to see that. But what other alternative is there? We’d be showing up with 30 cars, 25 cars if there was a no start-and-park rule. Those guys would be sitting at home [because] they can’t afford the tires, they can’t afford a big crew, it just works out that way. It’s a double-edged sword, because if you say no start-and-park, then you’re going to have a 30-car field.
Keith: Do you see that necessarily as a negative, having a 30-car field as opposed to 43?
Keller: Well, on the longer racetracks, yes, because the fans come to the bigger tracks, to the mile and a halves, to see action all over the track. It’s not like when we sit at home and just see the top three or four cars up front. So, I think there needs to be the bigger fields on the bigger race tracks, to give the fans their money’s worth. The guy sitting on the front straightaway who may have paid a couple hundred dollars for his seat, if he sees just a little pack going by him every once in a while, I don’t see that as a good thing.
Keith: Speaking of only seeing the top 3 or 4 cars on TV, we don’t normally see cars like the No. 27 a lot on TV. Is that ESPN’s prerogative to do that (display only the leaders) or is that something that maybe NASCAR needs to take a look at?
Keller: Well, I just hate that. You know, the Cup-supported teams and the Cup guys are going to get more exposure, more recognition, because they’re up front. But this team was really struggling last year, and now we’re a much more competitive team. That’s a story within itself, too, and I’d like that story to be told a little more often, to maybe keep the Kimberly Clarks associated with this type of race team. We were 24th in car owner points last year, we’re currently 14th – there’s so many more positives. Yeah, we didn’t go from 24th to winning races, but we sure did bridge the gap. So, you would like for that story to be told more often. Is that ESPN’s place to tell that story… apparently not. But you’ve just to take what they’ll give you, I guess.
Keith: Talking about bridging the gap. You guys have made leaps and bounds from where you were last year.. so, tell the story. What have you as a veteran been able to do over here to run this much better?
Keller: Well, it’s not just one thing. I came over here with a few races left last year, and the cars had gotten off. Their baseline had gotten way off. And Todd Gordon came over with me, but it’s not just two people. It’s organizing everyone and using your racing experience, moving forward. We’re probably not going to win a race, but I feel like we’re tons more competitive than they were over the last couple years really. I’m really proud that I could bring my knowledge and my experience over here and help. And it’s not like that I came over here and did everything, or Todd came over here and did everything – it’s been a huge team effort. You’ve got to be able to use your racing knowledge to your benefit, and I think that’s what we’ve done.
Keith: As we’ve said, 2010 is uncertain. Even further down the road though, what are your long-term career plans? When you hang up the helmet, are you going to stick around? Any aspirations of being an owner?
Keller: I don’t know. I’ve always said that I would race until I’m 40. I’m 39 now, pushing 40, but Mark Martin is making the age thing look cool. He really is. I think what you’re going to see is a trend back, these owners are going to say maybe we shouldn’t put these young, inexperienced kids in our cars. Maybe we should put a guy in it that can get the most out of it but not wreck. Maybe that’s what we need. And if that trend follows around, and I’m here six, eight more years, great. This is what I do, this is what I know. To have another chapter, to go into TV, to go into ownership, to do any of that stuff other drivers do, I don’t know that. I’m not even exploring those because I’m focused on driving. I’m 39 years old, I hope I’ve got a lot more time in the seat. Now if it gets to where that opportunity doesn’t present itself, I’ll focus on something else, but I don’t have my mind on doing that much.
Keith: Rides are at a premium right now. Next year, would you rule out going to Cup or Trucks?
Keller: I would not rule anything out. I drive racecars for a living, that’s all I’ve ever done. And that’s something that people have done over the years, they’ve labeled me as a Nationwide-only driver. That’s just where the opportunities have presented themselves. I don’t live in the Charlotte area, my kids don’t go to school with these owners’ kids, I don’t rub elbows with a lot of owners. The owners I see are in the Nationwide Series garage. That’s who I’ve rubbed elbows with and know. Over time, I’ve just gotten that tag of being a Nationwide-only driver. I just want to drive racecars, and I often say that once I retire from NASCAR I’m probably going to go back and get my name on the famous wall at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. I hope I’ve got a lot more years driving for a living, but it’s not something that I can just hang my helmet up. If I have to drive Trucks, and it’s not that I have to drive Trucks, if I’m fortunate enough to drive a competitive Truck, I’d love to…[We’ll] just have to wait and see what happens.
Keith: If it came down to it next year that a start-and-park was the only way to go for a ride, is that something you’d do to keep yourself in the seat? We’ve seen a veteran like Joe Nemechek have to do that this year.
Keller: I’ll never say never, because as soon as I do you’ll print something that’ll come back and haunt me. But it’s something that I would rather not do, and I’m certain it’s something Joe Nemechek would rather not do. But sometimes you’re forced into those situations, and you do what you have to do. I’m very blessed that I can go home and make a living, so I don’t view it as a way… if it comes down to taking a start-and-park to make a living… that’d be a tough decision to make. It’d be a tough decision, because it’s something I don’t want to do. Even now, I don’t know that we can win races where we are, but I know we can run competitive and it still gets those juices flowing week in and week out. I don’t know that my wife would let me do a start-and-park, because I don’t think she could live with me. I just don’t know if I’m cut out for that.
Keith: You’ve seen what the Series has gone through. If you were given keys to the kingdom to change the Nationwide Series, what would you change first? Besides the new car?
Keller: I would never, never have any more than 10 Cup drivers in a given race. I think we need them for the recognition and exposure of the series. But this has always been a series that’s supposed to be for guys to get experience. This series does not need to be a practice session for the Cup guys. If 20 of them enter the race, that’s fine, fastest 10. If you’re guaranteed a spot in the top 35 over there, fastest 10 make it. That would never fly, because I think the promoters want 12 or more of them in the race, but that just pushes out a lot of guys that will never get a shot because maybe they miss shows, don’t make races. I would start there, and try to make it as affordable as you can, because teams can’t get the type of money they could when sponsors were just dying to get in the sport. I mean, you’ve got to be able to race on a $3.5-4 million budget. I think that’s attainable, but you’ve got to get it back to that.