Roush Fenway Racing crew chief staying put in Nationwide Series
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Mike Kelley stared at a replica of the NASCAR Nationwide Series trophy, still wondering if he made the right decision.
The moment came at the end of a day-long celebration in Columbus, Ohio -- home of title sponsor Nationwide Insurance -- that included recognition at center court of an Ohio State men’s basketball game and an opportunity to meet two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
The celebration also served as swan song with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse is moving on to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. Kelley is staying in Nationwide.
And it was Kelley himself who made that decision.
"It's probably one of the single hardest decisions I've had to make in my life."
-- Mike Kelley, crew chief
“I was given opportunities in two different directions,” Kelley said. “One was to continue with Ricky, my best friend, and go chase that next step of the dream together. Or, the other was stay back with my group and be home with my family on Sunday.
“It’s probably one of the single hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”
Kelley chose family over friendship, and no one is blaming him -- especially not Stenhouse. They won two championships and eight races together.
But the driver isn’t shy about how he feels moving on without Kelley.
“It kind of sucks,” Stenhouse admitted.
The duo began racing together three years ago in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing.
What started with struggles and setbacks at RFR turned into triumphs and titles.
During that journey, Stenhouse and Kelley became best friends, bonding over on-track success and tough personal times.
“Brad Keselowski (with crew chief Paul Wolfe) is almost the perfect example of what it could be with me and Mike,” said Stenhouse, referring to the duo that won championships in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup.
But now it’s time for Kelley to forge a similar relationship with Trevor Bayne.
Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, is moving into the No. 6 car for his first full-time season in the Nationwide Series.
Kelley has a different driver, but the same goal.
“I have to give my team and Trevor every chance to be back here next year,” Kelley said, referring to the celebration in Ohio. “And if we can do that, then that’s great. That’s our number one goal, to win this championship a third time.”
But Kelley’s past won’t be far from him.
The No. 6 team will work closely with Stenhouse’s Sprint Cup Series team in the shop and at the race track.
“We’re going to run the Nationwide program with Trevor and Ricky’s Cup team as close together as we can so that everything is helping both programs,” Kelley said. “I’m going to give my program 100 percent focus. But I’m going to keep my eye on (Stenhouse’s) deal over there. So that if something does have to change, it’s ready if I have to go there. And I think everyone in our organization is smart enough to know that it’s not just a possibility, that’s something that could happen.”