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Keller's success no longer is overlooked

Coming into his own

Posted: Thursday, May 09, 2002

ATLANTA -- For most of the previous three seasons, Jason Kel ler was remembered more for being Jeff Green's teammate on the NASCAR Busch Series circuit than for winning four races.

Now that Green has earned a promotion to the Winston Cup Series, Keller, at long last, is making a name for himself.

The victory last week at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway was his third of the season, and it put him atop the Busch Series standings for the first time in his career. With Green winning 13 races and a championship (2000) in the three previous seasons for PPC Racing, it was easy not to notice Keller's three consecutive top-eight finishes in the point standings.

Suddenly, it's impossible to miss the product of Clemson University.

''A lot of people were looking at me as second to Jeff, but that was OK and that didn't bother me,'' Keller said. ''I'd really like to say that we're performing above expectations, because we said all winter long that we need to win a lot more races, so it's going as planned.''

Keller and his new teammate at PPC Racing, Scott Riggs, have combined to win the past four races on the junior circuit: Keller at Richmond and Talladega (Ala.); Riggs at Nashville (Tenn.) and California. Counting Keller's victory at Bristol (Tenn.), the PPC stables have won five of 10 Busch Series races this year.

Now Keller his heading to the one-mile New Hampshire International Speedway for Saturday's Busch 200 as the defending race winner and the hottest driver in his division.

With the Winston Cup Series taking its second of only three weekends off in a season that doesn't end until Thanksgiving, this week's main event is a chance for the entire sport to notice Keller.

''Hopefully we can continue to win more races,'' Keller said. ''We didn't say that we wanted to win three of the first 10 races. We said that we want to win races all year long, and that's been our focus all winter long and that hasn't changed.''

Although Keller had several successful runs in the past, he couldn't escape Green's shadow. Last year, Keller was third in the final Busch Series standings; Green was second. In 2000, Keller was second in the standings; Green was the champion. And in 1999, Keller was eighth in the rankings; Green was second.

''I had a long talk with Greg Pollex (co-owner) over the winter when we talked about bringing a rookie driver (Riggs) in, and I was asked to step up. I feel like I've done that. We still go back and forth and exchange information, but I think that's a true assessment that I have stepped out of the shadows, so to speak.''

It's easy for drivers to get lost on the Busch Series. For most of its 53 years of existence, the Busch Series has been considered a training ground, a minor league of sorts, for the Winston Cup circuit. In the past few years, however, NASCAR has tried to promote the junior circuit as a being worthy of its own niche. Fans must agree, because according to television ratings and attendance figures, the Busch Series now is the second-most popular form of motorsports in the country, trailing only its big brother, Winston Cup.

For Keller, the Busch Series is just fine, although seven of the past nine champions on the Busch Series now are full-time drivers on the senior circuit.

''If the opportunity presents itself, we'll look at it,'' he said. ''But right now, I don't want to get into something thinking about something else. I'm just going to try to focus on my Busch program, and be happy that I have a first-class Busch program and not worry about the other stuff.

''I don't know that's the answer to that because I've never done it. I'm just going to be very selective and very careful with the next move that I make, and we'll go from there.''

This time, however, everyone will notice.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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