- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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As Jason Keller moves closer to making Busch Series history, it's quite clear he appreciates the magnitude of his accomplishment. If all goes according to plan, next month at Lowe's Motor Speedway he'll surpass Tommy Houston and become the all-time leader in series starts.
Some drivers might not embrace such a milestone, feeling bad that a full-time opportunity in Cup never came their way. Keller, though, is proud of his longevity in the Busch Series. And after starting this year wondering if a chance at the record would ever come his way, he's grateful to be running a limited schedule with Brewco Motorsports and CJM Racing.
I've never viewed the Busch Series as a stepping stone. I've always viewed the Busch Series as a great place to race and a great opportunity to be able to race for a living.
With the Busch Series set to take on a new title sponsor next season, breaking the mark while it is still the Busch Series means a lot to Keller. He'll tie Houston's mark of 417 starts at Lowe's Motor Speedway, assuming he qualifies for races at Dover and Kansas later this month.
At 37, the Greenville, S.C., native doesn't plan on hanging up his helmet anytime soon. Given his longevity in the sport -- he made his Busch Series debut in 1991 and began running the full schedule three years later -- Keller realizes some figure he's ready to retire.
"A lot of people think that because I've been in the Busch Series so long that I must be in that over-40 or -45 ranks, but I often laugh about it. I was kind of a young gun when the young guns [weren't] cool," Keller said. "I've had a long and great career in the Busch Series. I've never viewed the Busch Series as a stepping stone. I've always viewed the Busch Series as a great place to race and a great opportunity to be able to race for a living. It's been good to me over the years."
With over $11 million in earnings, Keller's carved out a solid living for himself. Granted, the driver sees only a portion of the prize money earned, but he's not kicking himself that he hasn't had a chance at the financial windfall that is the Cup Series.
"You'll have to ask my wife the earnings question because I don't know how much money I make," Keller said. "She seems to keep up with that. All in all, it's been great. I'm glad to be back part of a series that I love so much and to be back on a regular basis. I know I've been in and out on a sporadic basis over the last 12 months. It was important to me to get back in the series that I really, really, love and [I'm] hopefully looking forward to 400 more starts if it all works right."
Greg Pollex, who co-owned the cars Keller drove for years, was hired by CJM Racing as a consultant earlier this year and he recruited Keller to the team, which elected to move to the Busch Series after finding the going too tough in Cup at the season's outset.
Pollex's departure was announced by the team on Wednesday, but it appears the other pieces of the puzzle remain in place.
"Greg took the time to help us build this program by hand-picking great people," said Tony Mullet, who owns the team along with his brother, Bryan. "He was able to assemble a group of guys that from experience he knew would get the job done."
Keller hopes to be getting the job done for years to come. And he's interested to see what's next for the series. Years ago, drivers like Houston spent virtually their entire career in the series and weren't worried about taking the next step.
At this point, a Cup career isn't a realistic proposition for Keller, who wouldn't mind seeing a shift back to the days when more drivers ran the series for years at a time without worrying about that next step.
"People in the Busch series, different people have always had different agendas," Keller said. "Some have used it merely as a practice for the Sunday race. Some have used it for driver development just to, for a year, to get seat time for Cup. It used to have that element where some of us, myself, Randy Lajoie, Elton Sawyer, some of these guys used it for a home in that we were comfortable being there, we were [in love] with the schedule, we were able to represent great sponsors.
"That element, the third element I'm talking about, has gone away a little bit. I hope that doesn't go away entirely. I hope I'm one of the ones that carry the flag and get it back as a key element to the Busch Series. Only time will tell. Trends of the series have come and gone. Hopefully, that trend will come back.
"You have to look at it, and one of the reasons that I say it's not a trend anymore is because some of the people that would probably do that are your Todd Bodines, your Ted Musgraves, and they've been able to do that in the [Craftsman] Truck Series, Jack Sprague and those guys. It's not that the Busch Series is not healthy, it's just there's another avenue for people to find a home where they don't have to race on Sunday. Hopefully, we can get some more of the guys that view the Busch Series as a solid racing series that we can make our home and not just make a stepping-stone."
If he has anything to say about it, Keller will be in the Busch Series for years to come. And he'll likely leave the light on for anyone else wishing to join him for more than a year or two.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Jason Keller doesn't see the Busch Series merely as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. That's why he's close to overtaking Tommy Houston as the all-time leader in series starts, writes Mark Ashenfelter.