Jason Keller, driver of the No. 22 Ford, has four consecutive top-five finishes in the NASCAR Busch Series final point standings, but the 13-year series veteran had sponsorship woes heading into the off-season that left his racing future uncertain.
Jason Keller, driver of the No. 22 Ford, has four consecutive top-five finishes in the NASCAR Busch Series final point standings, but the 13-year series veteran had sponsorship woes heading into the off-season that left his racing future uncertain. Keller spoke about the upcoming season, which includes a sponsor and crew chief change, during the lunch break of Wednesday's Busch Series test at Daytona International Speedway.
JASON KELLER -22-ppc Racing Ford Taurus
WHAT IS YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE TEST SO FAR? "I don't think we're where we need to be. It's a new crew chief, a lot of new team guys, so there are a lot of new things. We're learning a lot, but as far as speed-wise, I'm not so sure any of the Fords are where they need to be right now. These rules that we have over here on the Busch side really seem to be affecting the Fords more than the other manufacturers, so hopefully we can work through that and find some speed."
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE SPEEDWAY RULES PACKAGE THAT IS AFFECTING THE FORDS MORE THAN THE OTHER MANUFACTURERS? "There are a couple of different scenarios and I think we're all guessing at what it may be, but we've proven to ourselves that this package is extremely horsepower sensitive, and the way they've got us, I'm not so sure we're equal horsepower right now. We're a little down from the other manufacturers, and having said that, it magnifies our deal a little bit more than other manufacturers."
DO YOU BELIEVE THE RACING AT DAYTONA WILL BE BETTER THIS YEAR WITH THE NEW AERO PACKAGE? "I haven't run the car out in the pack yet and I'm looking forward to that this afternoon, but from what I remember from the Cup race a couple years back when they had the same rules package, it was a tremendous race. It should be that way for us only if everybody can use their head. >From what I've been told, the close-up rate is going to be extremely fast and you're going to have to have somewhere to go or know what you're going to do when you get there. It's going to be different."
WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT THE BUSH SERIES COMPETITORS IF NASCAR TRUSTS THEM TO RUN IN A TIGHTER PACK? "I'm not going to answer that until after the race because it could be bad if we all don't use our heads, but hopefully we use our heads. I've heard both sides of the coin. A lot of Cup guys were complaining about it, they hated these rules, but some of them said it was the best racing that they've ever seen. I'm trying my best to say that I'm going to have an open mind on this thing, and we'll just have to wait and see."
NASCAR ANNOUNCED A CHANGE IN THE POINTS SYSTEM YESTERDAY. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CHANGE? "With what they did in the Busch Series it's really minimal. I know they don't like to us the word playoff on the Cup side, but I only watch football during the playoffs. I only watch baseball if it's the playoffs. That's just me. Hopefully this will bring some new fans into the sport. Now with the rules they set, it's not what we're used to, so it's going to be a tremendous change. Would I have voted for a change? No, I would have left it the way it was, but the change is here and I'm sure it will come down to our series if it works on the Cup side."
ARE YOU SURPRISED THAT THE NEW FORMAT FOR DETERMINING THE CHAMPIONSHIP WAS ONLY IMPLEMENTED ON THE CUP SIDE? "They've used us for guinea pigs for a long time, so I'm glad they're using them. Our points race couldn't have been any more exciting last year. I think the trucks couldn't have been any more exciting and they're trying to bring that excitement to the Cup side. I think if they would have left it the way it was, I'm not so sure you'd have the same outcome you had last year. You had one race team and one driver that was extremely consistent, and that happens once only every so often. We've always been rewarded for consistency and we've always said that Daytona at the beginning of the year is just as important as Homestead at the end of the year, and now on the Cup side you're going to race a 26-race season and then a 10-race season, so it's going to be a little different."
PPC RACING HAD BEEN A TWO-CAR OPERATION FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS, BUT YOU ARE CURRENTLY THE ONLY BUSCH TEAM OPERATING FROM THE SHOP. HOW WILL THE LACK OF A TEAMMATE AFFECT YOU? "We're still working to have a second team this season and I think a second team is extremely positive. With the way the sponsorship program fell, I'm glad we didn't try to do a second team just to do a second team. We were able to take some crew from the 57 and we were able to take some crew members off of 10 and put them together to really mix things up a little bit. I don't want to say that this is a totally new beginning because I'm not expecting an extremely big learning curve. I've worked around all of these guys, most of them except my new crew chief (Wes Ward), but I've been here in this sport a long time and all of these guys have been in the sport for a long time, so I don't want to blame it on a learning curve. I think we need to get out of the box strong and I think we can do that."
YOU MADE A CREW CHIEF CHANGE IN THE OFF-SEASON REPLACING LONG-TIME CREW CHIEF STEVE ADDINGTON WITH WES WARD. WHAT PROMPTED THE NEED FOR A CHANGE? "Steve and I got kind of stale. He needed a driver to communicate in a different way and I needed a crew chief to translate it in a different way. Steve and I are still like brothers. We grew up together and Steve has himself a tremendous opportunity with where he went and I'm extremely happy with the opportunity I have with Wes. All in all, everybody wins, and the main thing is to bring something new to it. When we go to Las Vegas to test next week, and when I say it's loose, I have to explain to Wes what I mean where Steve understood that. There is going to be a little bit of leaning curve, but we needed to have some new ideas and new things brought in, and who knows, maybe Steve and I may end up together again 10 years down the road. We're not going to burn that bridge, but we need to take advantage of this opportunity. I'm extremely excited with Wes coming on board and I'm looking forward to it."
DID YOU THINK YOU WOULD BE BACK WITH PPC RACING THIS SEASON WHEN YOUR NAME HAD BEEN FLOATING AROUND THE RUMOR MILL IN SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER? "There were several times last year that I would have said no, looking at other options I had. Am I glad that I'm back? I'm extremely glad that I'm back with this package. I see so much potential and I see so much good. There were times, you said September, but there were times in November and December that I didn't even know if I was going to be back here. I'm not going to fret over the things that led to the things that happened in November or December, but we're going to take advantage of the opportunities, the sponsorships that we have and go forward."
YOU HAVEN'T ANNOUNCED A PRIMARY SPONSOR YET, BUT THERE HAVE BEEN RUMORS SURROUNDING THE CHANGE OF THE CAR NUMBER FROM 57 TO 22. DO YOU HAVE A FULL-YEAR DEAL INKED FOR THIS SEASON? "Most people have put the two and two together, but the sponsorship package that we have right now is a limited deal. It's for 20 races and we do have some sponsors that will fill in some, but we do have some races that we have to sell. Greg Pollex has committed to me and this entire team that we will be at every race. He's committed to Ford as well and Ford has committed to him. We hope that we don't have to come with a blank race car, and if we're leading the points, maybe that will take care of itself and that would be a big story to come to race with a blank race car."
THE NO. 92 BUSCH TEAM WAS CAUGHT IN A SIMILAR SITUATION LAST SEASON WITH A LACK OF SPONSORSHIP. DO YOU FEAR THAT YOUR TEAM COULD SUFFER THE SAME FATE? "It can happen. It's a performance business, but hopefully we get the sponsor that we have extremely excited, and hopefully we can show them big things from the beginning of the year. The thing with the 20 races is that it's spread out throughout the season and it's not just the first 20. We'll be here and we'll be a mainstay all year long and I just don't want to show up with a blank race car."
WITH THE NUMBER OF CUP DRIVERS COMPETING IN THE BUSCH SERIES ON A LIMITED BASIS, DO YOU FEEL THAT THEY ARE POTENTIALLY TAKING AWAY MONEY THAT COULD GO TO A FULL-TIME TEAM THUS HURTING THE HEALTH OF THE SERIES? "It is. We lost an extremely good potential sponsor to a limited Busch deal with a Cup driver towards the end of September. We were up for a really, really good deal and it went to a limited deal with a Cup driver. What I hate to see happen is if they go with these limited teams, and they get in and get out. We want them to stay in the series for a long time, but that's part of it and you have to compete with those guys. They have the name, the recognition and all of the resources to go after those sponsors, and unfortunately we lost one that we really felt like we were close to getting."
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF DRIVERS PULLING DOUBLE DUTY THIS SEASON, COMPETING BOTH IN NEXTEL CUP AND THE BUSCH SERIES. DO YOU SEE IT AS AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE WHEN THEY HAVE ADDITIONAL TRACK TIME? "I don't really see that that's an issue. They're going to have it tough. They're going to have to try to do the travel situation, but that goes with the Cup guys running in the Grand National Series, but I don't see that as problem."
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF TALK ABOUT A NEW WORKING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FORD TEAMS ON THE CUP SIDE. IS THAT SAME EFFORT BEING PURSUED IN THE BUSCH SERIES? "I don't know, we've just been trying to catch up so we really haven't sat down and hashed that out. Ford allows us a lot of technology and a lot of things that we use in the wind tunnel that really helps us. They try to pool their teams together and it really, really makes it possible for us to compete with these other factory teams that maybe have a NEXTEL Cup connection or a NEXTEL Cup associated team. I think Ford does a great job, but the race teams are going to be individual. Rensi is going to be different from ppc, that's just the competition of this business and I think a manufacturer can only do so much."
DO YOU THINK YOUR TEAM, WHICH USES ROBERT YATES ENGINES, WILL BENEFIT FROM THE COOPERATIVE EFFORT BETWEEN YATES AND ROUSH? "Hopefully it will carry down. The more research and development we have is better and I guess the only Roush full-time Busch team is Biffle's, so I hope it will trickle down, and if they learn something as far as motors we can have it and vice-versa. But, it's all about getting an edge, and if the Fords can get an edge on the other manufacturers that's what it takes."