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Jason Keller's last-minute deal could provide dividends for the veteran driver

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By Lee Montgomery

Jason Keller’s 11th-hour deal to drive for TriStar Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series could turn out to be a great thing.

Keller announced late last week he had agreed to drive for the team owned by Mark Smith, a noted engine builder and owner of Pro Motors Engines. Keller said his crew chief will be Bryan Berry, who had success with Brendan Gaughan in 2009.

"To be honest with you, I don’t know that I would do something like this unless I felt comfortable with someone," Keller said in a phone interview earlier this week. "And I’ve got a long-standing relationship with Mark Smith. That’s kind of the reason why I’m jumping as we’re all jumping. The road might be a little rough to start with. But the motors won’t be an issue. That’s piece of the puzzle we won’t have to worry about."

But Keller acknowledged that it will be an uphill climb. The team was still hiring crew members and trying to acquire cars, and the season is 10 days away. Plus, Smith formed a partnership with Front Row Motorsports to run the No. 34 Chevrolet driven by Tony Raines out of his shops in Denver, N.C., making it an all-out scramble to get ready for the season.

"We’ve made an agreement to race as long as we can, really," Keller said. "I’m a little standoffish to make big predictions. That’s our intention. Our intentions are to get this thing in the top 30 in points and then evaluate from there, make sure we’ve got enough money to continue on all year long.

"I’m going into this thing with an open mind, for sure, and to make sure we evaluate on a month-by-month basis and see how it goes, make sure we’re financially stable to do it."

Keller said he originally was going to drive the No. 19 – Smith’s former number in the Cup series – but NASCAR told them another team has that number. Keller could end up in the No. 35, but there are plenty of other issues facing the team, for sure.

Keller will have to make the first five races of the season via qualifying because a deal to get points from another team likely won’t be made. Then again, getting to the race track will be the first priority.

"This is something that’s happened extremely quick," Keller said.

Still, with the right people and the right pieces, it could turn into a great move for Keller.