Greenville's Keller gets a ride for 2010

The Greenville NewsJanuary 30, 2010 

Jason Keller has had a steering wheel in his lap for as long as he can remember.

For the past several months, however, that steering wheel has been attached to a forklift.

"I've been working for my dad's business, driving a forklift all winter," said Keller, a NASCAR regular for the past 17 seasons. "It has actually been a very pleasant winter."

But as winter gives way to spring, Keller's thoughts again are turning to racing.

The Greenville stock car driver announced Friday an agreement with TriStar Motorsports of Mooresville, N.C., to drive the team's No. 19 Chevrolet on the Nationwide Series this season.

With the season-opening race at Daytona looming on Feb. 13, Keller will have to make a quick transition.

"We're gonna buckle down and go," he said.

TriStar team owner Mark Smith, who said "our intention is to run the whole season (schedule)," has been out of the ownership business since 1997, but before that his team featured drivers such as Bobby Hamilton and Loy Allen Jr., in the 1990s. Smith has focused on building engines in recent years, most notably ones used by Ron Hornaday Jr. en route to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title last season.

"This is our biggest effort to get back in on the other side of it," Smith said.

Smith said he has known Keller for years and feels comfortable with him behind the wheel.

"I have a lot of respect for him," Smith said. "I like his consistency. The guy never gives up. I think he's smart in the way he races. He takes care of equipment and his experience goes forever."

Keller, 39, parted ways with Baker Curb Racing at the end of last season following his 10th career Top 10 finish in the Nationwide points standings.

"We had a good solid year," Keller said. "We ran very respectable. I wasn't content by any means, but happy with what we did. I controlled everything I could control. But we all decided to go our separate ways for a lot of reasons. That's the way racing goes."

Keller hadn't conceded his career was over, but he decided to focus on the family business.

So Keller spent the winter not thinking about racing.

"I had not even looked at the schedule, and that's a rarity for me," Keller said. "I usually sit at home and ponder it and worry myself sick. I talked to some people (about a possible ride), but I haven't been chasing the Internet for every rumor."

Keller learned long ago that nothing is to be taken for granted in the racing world, a fact that has been underscored during the current economic crisis.

"It's a changing time in racing," Keller said. "The drivers with money are the ones that are able to position themselves. Some deserve to be there because of their racing skills, but a lot are there because of their ability to bring a sponsor with them.

"So it's less about what you've done - what's on your resume - than it is about what kind of sponsor you can bring. You can't really fault the owners; the owners have to pay the bills."

Now Keller is making plans to spend early February in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the 18th consecutive year.

"I was talking with my wife last weekend about how this would be my first time spending Valentine's Day at home," Keller said. "I don't know if I'd jump off this cliff like I'm jumping if it wasn't for Mark Smith. I'm happy for the opportunity."

Even if it means a break in driving the forklift.

"I think all the guys I work with down here got me this job so I'd leave them alone," Keller said.

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