Remember back in the 1980s and 1990s, when people would race at their local short track and some car owner would get a tip about what a hot shoe they were? The owner would give them a tryout, put them in a good late model or an ARCA car, and see if they really showed some promise. If that all went well, the driver would put in a few years in the Nationwide Series, win a few races, contend for a championship and then get a shot at Cup racing.
Ah, the good ol’ days, not anymore my friends. The Nationwide Series now is about making money and making as much money as you can. How does a team make money? How does NASCAR make money? They take a Cup level driver and stick him in a Nationwide car. So goes the saga for a young Kelly Bires, one of the brighter potential stars on the NASCAR horizon who doesn’t drive a Cup car that now doesn’t get to keep his Nationwide ride.
Bires did it the way you’re supposed to do it. Started racing go-karts at age 9, he advanced to national events at age 12 and won two national championships in karting. He was the Great Lakes Allison Legacy Series rookie of the year in 2000 and won the championship in the series in 2001. In 2002 he raced super late models at Dells Motor Speedway, finished fifth in points and was the rookie of the year. He made his first ARCA start in 2004 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finished a respectable eighth after qualifying fourth – ironically only two positions worse than Danica Patrick finished in JR Motorsports equipment in her debut at Daytona this year.
2006 saw Bires crowned ASA Late Model Series champion and finally given a break with a contract to drive a Truck Series entry for the Wood Brothers. Competing in the Wood Brothers No. 21 for all of the 2007 season, he landed a best finish of 10th at Atlanta before moving over to Nationwide racing after Jon Wood withdrew from competition due to illness. His best Nationwide finish in 2007 was a seventh place at Kentucky Speedway.
Bires was named the full time driver of the No. 47 Nationwide car for Tad Geschickter for 2008, and had six top-10 finishes with a 13th-place finish in the points standings. Unfortunately for Bires, JTG Daugherty could not secure sponsorship for the ride for the 2009 season so he had to pursue other options. 2009 saw a cornucopia of rides for Bires from Braun Racing, CJM Racing, JTG – doing some start-and-park driving – as well as competing for Kevin Harvick Incorporated and MSRP Motorsports. His best finish was a fourth at Nashville Superspeedway with KHI. 2009 did see Bires get his big break, as he was signed to be the full-time driver of the No. 88 for JRM through the 2011 season.
Unfortunately for Bires, that assignment didn’t turn out to quite live up to the dream job it sounds like it will be. Bires was bumped out of the car for the season-opener at Daytona when a sponsor demanded Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive the car and Patrick was put in the other JRM ride as one of her three initial Nationwide starts for this season. Bires got in the car for Fontana and promptly brought home a seventh-place finish. That was the high water mark of his “career” at JRM. The following week he crashed at Las Vegas, then posted finishes of 12th, 14th and 17th at Bristol, Nashville and Phoenix. At this point in the story, it all diverges from the good ol’ day version of the story and falls into line with the current world of the Nationwide series.
Three days removed from the Phoenix race, Bires has been released from his contract with JRM and has been replaced by Jamie McMurray. So much for the development of a young talent into a Cup caliber driver while putting in his time behind the wheel of some decent quality Nationwide equipment. Granted, Bires is 25 years old and he’s competed in 73 Nationwide races, but he’s never been in top-notch equipment until this year. He finally gets a shot and his bosses give him five races before giving him the boot.
The reasoning behind the decision is that the chemistry just isn’t there, that they want to see better performance out of their flagship car. That sounds well and good. However, the lack of chemistry is between Bires, a kid from Wisconsin, and Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt Jr.’s uncle. Hate to break it to ya Kelly but blood is thicker than water. If Pops ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and JRM isn’t about to cut loose the crew chief who led the namesake of the company to his two Nationwide Series championships back in the ’90s.
It really is a shame that Eury didn’t take a shine to this young talent and really take the time to work with him and bring him along. Lord knows Dale Jr. tore up a lot of stuff when he first started in Nationwide racing, but Pops was patient and worked with him to make him a better driver. The resulting partnership led to back-to-back Nationwide titles and ultimately 18 Cup wins for Junior.
Some of the blame lies with Bires as well. His griping about being pushed out of his ride at Daytona certainly couldn’t have set well with his boss. The young man would have been very smart to have taken one for the team and bided his time until he got the ride, and then showed his talents before Jr. and everyone. People who have followed this more closely have said that Eury Sr. was unyielding on the radio and didn’t seem receptive to Bires’s complaints about the car. Bires, on the other hand, could have gotten up on the wheel and done his damnedest to make the most of a situation that found him in some of the best equipment in the garage.
For now, we’ll have to stomach another Cup driver moonlighting on Saturdays, taking the spotlight away from up and coming drivers while a fine young talent sits on the sidelines waiting for another break. Here’s hoping that Bires is lucky enough to get some quality seat time, maybe in the No. 21 for RCR, I’ve heard that ride is going to be open for a week or two.