By Lee Montgomery Special to the Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
A young driver is about to drive a JR Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time this year in the Nationwide Series.
No, it’s not Danica Patrick. Not everything these days in NASCAR is about the IndyCar star.
The young driver is Kelly Bires, 25, who was the odd-man out in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway last weekend. Team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the No. 88 entry at Daytona, while Patrick chose to make her NASCAR debut and was in the No. 7.
That left Bires on the sidelines, drawing sympathy from fans and competitors alike. Bires was the heir apparent to Brad Keselowski on the team but couldn’t make the start at Daytona.
"It kind of surprised me how many people really knew who I was," Bires said. "That brought attention that you do have some pretty dang loyal fans out there. I think everyone just wanted to see me—they know the opportunity I’ve got ahead of me, and they wanted to see me racing.
"Everyone’s always excited about the first race of the year. Daytona’s always a big one. There’s a couple months off of racing, and everyone’s watching it. It just creates a big deal. I think if I would’ve run that race and maybe missed California, it might not have been as big a deal. But just all the hype leading up to Daytona, it kind of intensified it a little bit."
While Bires got his share of attention, Patrick was under intense media scrutiny. And that likely will continue this weekend in Saturday’s Stater Bros. 300 at Auto Club Speedway. Bires doesn’t really mind seeing his more popular teammate getting the attention, which could help him focus more on his task at hand.
"You know it’s going to come to her, just because it’s obviously something new to the sport," Bires said. "It’s the new hot ticket. The media either wants to get a piece from her—it’s the new hot thing. It’s like the new soda out there. It’s kind of what it reminded me of. Obviously, it’ll fade away as we continue to race through the schedule."
Bires also hopes his deficit in the championship race will fade away as the season continues. He’s in a deep hole in the title hunt after missing Daytona, and he knows it. Crew chief Tony Eury Sr. said before the season he expected Bires to pick up right where Keselowski left off in the No. 88, but now Bires will be in catch-up mode. Keselowski finished third in each of the past two years, winning six races.
"Our focus is more going out there every week and running in the top 10, top five and winning races," Bires said. "The points obviously take care of themselves. Missing one race, it’s going to add a little bit of difficulty to keep up with people like Carl (Edwards)."
Keselowski regularly raced Edwards, the 2007 Nationwide champion who finished second the past two years. Bires finished 13th in 2008, his only full season in the series. He started 14 races last year, finishing in the top 10 three times. Keselowski made every start in his two full-time seasons.
"I don’t think it’s out of the question that we can miss one race and still do it," Bires said. "But you just can’t have any DNFs, can’t have anything that’s going to hurt your points. You’ve got to have a solid points day every week. You can’t have an off-week when you missed one."
What: Stater Bros. 300
Where: Auto Club Speedway; Fontana, Calif.
When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Eastern
TV: ESPN2, 5 p.m. Eeastern
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 2-mile oval
Race distance: 150 laps/300 miles
Qualifying: Saturday, 12:35 p.m.
2009 winner: Kyle Busch
2009 polesitter: Carl Edwards