Long Train Running: Start No. 500 Up Next For Keller Last week, he made start No. 499 at his home track. Now, the real drama begins. Jason Keller's (No. 35 Tri-Star Motorsports Chevrolet) next start will make NASCAR Nationwide Series history.
Long Train Running: Start No. 500 Up Next For Keller
Last week, he made start No. 499 at his home track. Now, the real drama begins.
Jason Keller's (No. 35 Tri-Star Motorsports Chevrolet) next start will make NASCAR Nationwide Series history. The series' all-time starts leader will be the first driver to reach 500, a goal he could attain Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Keller was eight shy of the milestone entering the season. But driving with a start-up team has meant growing pains, including three DNQs (did not qualify), as the team sits outside the top 30 in owner points. Last Friday at Darlington Raceway, Keller qualified 43rd, earning the last spot by .021 seconds.
"It hasn't gotten any easier for sure," Keller said. "The competitor in me just wants to make good quality starts. I felt like we were doing that before Darlington. So I'm really concentrating on the competition side."
But he's also concentrating on the memory side. Those 499 starts have come over a 20-year career, driving for 12 different owners -- including his father, Joe. The native of Greenville, S.C., has accumulated 10 wins, 11 Coors Light poles, 83 top fives (13th all-time) and 175 top 10s (third all-time).
The memories have tripped back to his first start, on April 27, 1991, at Lanier Speedway in Gainesville, Ga. "I remember that day, everything leading up to it, getting ready for it," he said. "That first start was at a track where I raced a lot. But I was so overwhelmed. I mean, I was racing David Green, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon. Those were guys I watched on TV. We qualified eighth, but I wrecked early. I remember paying my tire bill at the end of the race and thinking 'What just happened?' It was a whirlwind."
Now, on the cusp of 500, Keller, 40, can't help but get excited. "It will be special for me," he said. "My beautiful wife Deb will be with me this weekend. She was at the first one and will be with me for 500."
Many others who have been involved in Keller's march to 500 also will be on hand at Dover, hoping he hits the mark there. Friends like Steve Addington, Keller's long-time crew chief for many of those starts, and on-track rival Kenny Wallace (No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing Chevrolet).
Addington now oversees Kurt Busch's team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But the bond between the two men is still strong.
"Steve called me last week in Darlington but we couldn't get together," Keller said. "We plan on meeting this weekend at Dover and sharing some old stories ... some we can't share with others, though."
One he did share was that of Addington's prodding of his "early" engagement to Deb.
"It was December, a few days before Christmas," he said. "I was planning on giving her the ring early the next year on Valentine's Day, but Steve said, 'Look, you're going to do this anyway, so why don't you just do it now?' I told him I needed some encouragement. So he went with me to the jewelry store and we picked out Deb's ring. I proposed to her on Christmas Day."
Wallace also has been a staunch supporter despite the hundreds of races where the two have competed against each other. He's second to Keller on the all-time list with 463 starts.
"I've raced with Jason for most of his 500 starts." Wallace said. "I love to race with him because I can count on him. I can race side-by-side, bumper-to-bumper and wheel-to-wheel without worry. Jason is a driver that car owners want. He's a winner and takes care of his race car. I have a lot of respect for Jason Keller."
"Kenny's been talking to me a lot lately about what this milestone means to the sport," Keller said. "He's been calling, talking to me at the track, providing a lot of encouragement. He's a great friend. These are the types of friendships racing has brought me.
"Kenny, as colorful a person as he is though, is still a competitor. He's even told me he's got next year at Charlotte circled on his calendar where he could reach 500 starts.
"He and I talked about how we may be the only two to make it to 500. But dag-gone it, I want to be the first."
Despite Partial Season, Sorenson Shows Plenty Of Pop
Reed Sorenson (No. 32 Dollar General Toyota) has run six of the 10 NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season and still sits 23rd in the standings.
That begs the question: What if?
What if Sorenson ran the entire season? If he had, he would most certainly join the likes of Justin Allgaier (No. 12 Verizon Wireless Dodge), Jason Leffler (No. 10 ABF Freight Toyota) and Tony Raines (No. 34 Continental Fire & Safety Chevrolet as series-only regulars ranked in the top 10.
Sorenson has had only one poor finish, and bad luck was the culprit. After only 20 laps at Talladega Superspeedway, Sorenson got caught up in a 13-car wreck and finished 40th.
Otherwise, he has been solid. He has four top 10s, and has averaged a Driver Rating of 96.3 (and that's with the 54.0 he scored at Talladega).
His string of successful outings should continue this weekend at Dover. Though Sorenson has run only one Dover series race in the past two seasons, it was a good one. Last September, he finished seventh with a Driver Rating of 93.3 and an Average Running Position of 11.2.
In his seven Dover races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Sorenson has three top fives and six top 10s. Additionally, he has a Driver Rating of 97.3, an Average Running Position of 10.5, 31 Fastest Laps Run, a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-52 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 80.2%.
On the other side of the success spectrum is Mike Bliss (No. 40 Key Motorsports Chevrolet). Though this season hasn't been all struggles (he has one top 10, at Bristol), seven of his finishes have been 20th or worse.
Saturday's race might help the cause. The last time the series raced at Dover, Bliss finished second (though he was in the No. 11 CJM Racing Toyota).
This weekend, Bliss will attempt to improve upon his 25th-place points position. There's reason for optimism regarding that very scenario.
In his last six races at Dover, Bliss has a Driver Rating of 103.1, an Average Running Position of 9.4, a Pass Differential of plus-17, 65 Fastest Laps Run, 58 Laps Led and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 76.6%.
Although "Never Easy," Change Sits Well With Leffler
This certainly hasn't started out as the season Jason Leffler thought it would be.
A pre-season favorite to challenge for the NASCAR Nationwide Series title, Leffler fell into a funk right off the bat with a 33rd-place finish at Daytona International Speedway.
Two more disappointing finishes followed before he collected a 10th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway Things really began to unravel at Nashville Superspeedway where he was parked by NASCAR for aggressive driving, and also was hit with a three-race probation. He finished 41st at Talladega Superspeedway, giving him three DNFs (did not finish) on the year -- he had two last season. Last week, his Braun Racing team announced a crew chief change. Trip Bruce now is serving on an interim basis, replacing Scott Zipadelli.
But perhaps through all of the turmoil, Leffler's getting his groove back. He finished fifth at Darlington, his first top five of the year and first in 13 races. The result catapulted him into the top 10 in the points standings for the first time this year. He's currently ninth.
"This season has been bumpier than I had expected," he said. "But after a strong run last weekend I can feel things turning around.
"This is such a great group of hard-working guys and it's been tough on us all. Change is never easy but sometimes it's necessary to get things turned in a more positive direction.
"Everyone within the Braun Racing organization has really stepped in to help this team get back on track and I think we proved something last weekend with a top-five finish."
Now it's on to Dover, site of Leffler's first NASCAR national series victory. In 2003 he won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
"The Monster Mile" has been a good track for Leffler over the years. He's got seven top 10s in his 13 career races, including three top-five finishes. He's on a streak of three top-10 finishes there, dating back to the fall 2008 race, and was eighth in this race last year.
Can Keselowski Keep Flexing Muscles At Dover?
An appropriate question at "The Monster Mile" will be can the strong get stronger? Case in point: Brad Keselowski (No. 22 Ruby Tuesday Dodge). The NASCAR Nationwide Series standings leader also is the defending winner on Dover's 1-mile concrete surface.
Three of his nine career wins have come on concrete.
Keselowski leads second-place Kyle Busch No. 18 Combos Toyota) by 55 points. Busch, the reigning series champion, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano, were challenging for the win last year when an inadvertent but very untimely tap by Logano sent Busch out of the lead and allowed Keselowski to sneak between the two for the win.
The same strength argument also stands this weekend for JGR, but with a different duo. Busch is once again on the entry list this week along with last week's Darlington winner Denny Hamlin (No. 20 Food Lion Toyota).
Hamlin and Busch won three consecutive series races at Dover from 2007-08 (two straight for Hamlin, followed by Busch).
But for all the expected strength shown by Keselowski, Busch and Hamlin, a quiet strong showing has come from veteran Tony Raines. For just the third time in his 11-year NASCAR Nationwide Series career, Raines' name appears among the top 10 in the standings. He's 10th this week, the first time he's been in the top 10 since finishing sixth in 2001.
Raines has competed in five full-time seasons in the series, and also was in the top 10 for five weeks in 2000, with a top ranking of eighth. He'll be making his 18th start at Dover, the most starts at any track in his series career. Raines' first foray into the top 10 in quite some time isn't comfortable by any means.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series standings throughout the top 10 and beyond continue to be fluid and this week is no different.
Keselowski is zoning in on his fourth consecutive week as the standings leader. Carl Edwards (No. 60 FASTENAL Ford) also topped the rankings for four straight weeks earlier this year. Raines is now the eighth different driver who has occupied 10th place. In fact, only 26 points separates two-time series champion Greg Biffle (No. 27 Red Man Moist Snuff Ford), in eighth, from Steve Wallace (No. 66 5-Hour Energy Toyota), who's in 14th.
NNS Etc.: Dover Edition
* Braun, Cassill Back At Dover
After being sidelined for two and three weeks, respectively, Colin Braun (No. 16 Conway Freight Ford) and Landon Cassill (No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) return this weekend.
Braun, 21, the preseason favorite to win Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, stepped out of the No. 16 the last two weeks in favor of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Braun has had a taxing start to his season with five DNFs in eight races.
Cassill, 20, was the Raybestos Rookie of the Year in 2008 and has competed on a limited basis over the last two years. Targeted for a select number of races for JR Motorsports this year, Cassill has re-directed his schedule due to the addition of Steve Arpin to the team.
Both drivers last competed at Texas Motor Speedway where they also posted their best finishes of the year. Braun was 13th, Cassill 18th.
* Jack's Back: Ingram At HOF Opening
Jack Ingram, the NASCAR Nationwide Series' first champion and first two-time champion, was instrumental on Tuesday during the grand opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Ingram represented all series drivers as he joined a group that swiped their "hard cards" to ceremoniously open the Hall of Fame.
Other former series champions on stage at the opening ceremony were Johnny Benson, Greg Biffle, Chuck Bown, Steve Grissom and Joe Nemechek (No. 87 NEMCO Chevrolet).
* Homecoming' Game For Parlett
Ashley Parlett (Twitter: Just_AP), the car chief for RAB Racing and the No. 09 Ford of driver Chad McCumbee, calls Dover her home track. The 26-year-old Wye Mills, Md., native grew up racing open-wheel sprint cars.
She built every car she raced and didn't venture far from her roots when she landed her first job. Parlett has worked for RAB since 2008, and is one of the few female mechanics in the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage.
* NASCAR Social' At Dover AFB
On Friday, NASCAR Nationwide drivers, including Carl Edwards, Reed Sorenson, Michael Annett (No. 15 Germain.com Toyota), Scott Lagasse Jr. (No. 43 Baker Curb Racing Toyota), Colin Braun, Brian Scott (No. 11 Braun Racing Toyota), Scott Wimmer, Morgan Shepherd (No. 89 Racing with Jesus Chevrolet), Brian Keselowski (No. 26 K-Automotive Motorsports Ford) and Eric McClure (No. 24 Hefty Ford), will participate in an autograph session for more than 1,000 members of the military and their families at the Dover Air Force Base's NASCAR Social.
Saturday, several teams will host wounded soldiers and their families for a special race day experience, including Germain Racing, RAB Racing, Braun Racing's No. 32 and No. 38 teams, R3 Motorsports, Team Rensi Motorsports, Jay Robinson Racing's No. 28 team, Faith Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing's No. 98 team.
* NNS New Car Test May 18-19 At DIS
Tuesday and Wednesday, May 18-19, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will conduct a verification tire test for its new car at Daytona. It's the final test before the new car competes in its first points race on July 2, also at DIS. Thursday, May 20, is set aside as a rain date.
As many as 15 teams and 25 drivers are listed to participate during the two-day test. Drivers scheduled to test include reigning series champion Kyle Busch, current standings leader Brad Keselowski, Justin Allgaier, the top series-only regular in the standings (fifth) and Brian Scott, the Raybestos Rookie standings leader.
The garage opens both days at 8 a.m., with testing from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. each day. Driver availability will take place each day during the break and following Tuesday's media availability, NASCAR Nationwide Series director Joe Balash and Allgaier will provide a new car "Tech Talk" for media and fans in the Sprint FANZONE.
Next Race: Heluva Good! 200
The Place: Dover International
Speedway (1-mile concrete oval)
The Date: Saturday, May 15
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Distance: 200 laps / 200 miles
TV: ABC, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio (Locally on WDOV-AM 1410)
2009 Winner: Brad Keselowski
2009 Pole Winner: Joey Logano
Schedule prior to race day (times ET):
Friday, May 14--Practice, 1:05-3 p.m. (Only Practice).
Saturday, May 15--Qualifying, 10:05 a.m.