- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Kelly Bires will see Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time on Thursday, when the Busch Series holds an open practice session at the recently resurfaced facility. A night later, he'll be racing for keeps in the Food City 250.
Things happen fast at Bristol, but that's nothing new for Bires this season. A Wisconsin native who will celebrate his 23rd birthday Saturday, Bires was slated to split time with Mark Martin in a Wood Brothers/JTG Racing Ford in the Craftsman Truck Series after debuting there last year.
That all changed in June when health issues sidelined Jon Wood, who drove for the team in the Busch Series. Suddenly, Bires was asked to move to a series in which he never even had tested. Hardly looking like a rookie, he finished 15th in his debut at Nashville and a shocking seventh at Kentucky one week later.
Bires hasn't been better than 16th (at Daytona) in the past seven races and has been 24th or worse in his past four starts. After sitting out Montreal and Watkins Glen in favor of a driver with road course experience, Bires finished 32nd last week at Michigan.
Wood is healthy and back racing but will spend the rest of this year in the truck series, with Bires entrenched in the Busch car. Knowing that, he's anxious to learn, and that's why he easily shook off the Michigan finish. The team tried some new chassis setups that didn't work as hoped, but Bires learned from the experience.
"When we put this deal together in the middle of the season, we knew there would be some tough races," Bires said. "Everything we're doing is building for the future. When we start next year, we're going to be able to hit it running. We can't lose that focus.
"I've only made nine Busch Series starts, so everything is a learning experience. We learned a lot at Michigan, so as a team it was a success. I also learned a lot about the car and what it needs. That's another success. The finish isn't what we wanted, but [we] came away a better race team than when we got here."
Simply being back in the car was enough to make Bires smile after spending two weeks on the sideline. And that smile will carry over to Bristol, even though it's a track that has been intimidating to first-timers in the past.
"I've raced on a couple of tracks in Wisconsin and Missouri that were kind of like that, but nothing's Bristol," Bires said. "I'm looking forward to getting on the track on Thursday."
A year ago, Bires was racing in the American Speed Association, so rough spots are par for the course for a driver jumping several levels in such a short time. Still, he's pleased with his progress.
"It's going a lot easier than I thought," Bires said. "We got in [the groove] right away. We've had some really, really good runs every time we've been out. We've had a couple of part failures and a couple of misfortunes from other drivers, but we've been competitive and we're fast.
"I'm climbing up the ladder faster than I ever thought I would, and I'm getting the results faster than I thought, too. [Busch cars] just drive better. And it helps that we've got good cars when they unload off the trailer. We're fine-tuning the whole time we're here. Just get me up to speed and then go through and fine-tune, and we're usually pretty fast at the end of the day."
Bires likely will run the full schedule in the Busch Series next year, and he'll be prepared for what's coming. Initially slated as a week-to-week replacement for Wood, he still has yet to have a chance to test with his Busch Series team.
"Our testing is the race right now," Bires said. "Once we get a chance to get all of our stuff built up like we need it and get a couple test sessions under our belt, we'll be better yet."
Although Bires has plenty to learn about the cars and the tracks -- some of which he's seeing for the first time -- he knows how he wants to approach each race.
"You have to race the racetrack and not other people," Bires said. "You can have the fastest car and wreck on Lap 3 and it doesn't do you any good. You can have the slowest car and wreck on Lap 4 and it still doesn't do you any good.
"If you run the races the way you need to do it and just be smart about it and make the car better every [pit] stop, you can get a top-15 finish fairly easy."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.