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Owen Kelly: NASCAR is ‘pure gloves-off racing’

August 16, 2013, Eric Johnson, Special to,

Australian grew up racing Marcos Ambrose, rooting for Davey Allison

Down from the upside that is Australia, Australian road-course warrior Owen Kelly -- just like the 39 other drivers who will be boiling rubber onto central Ohio asphalt for the first time on Saturday afternoon -- threw everything that his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota had at the final practice session for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200.


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Stopping the clocks with a lap recorded at an average of 85.201 mph, the Tasmanian-born devil was the fourth-fastest racer in the stint, a mere 0.587 off of the P1 time that Brian Vickers threw down on the storied 2.258-mile, 12-turn Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Only two races into his 2013 NASCAR Trans-American tour, Kelly, 36, has certainly made a large impression -- with his on-track skill and aggression as well as in the form of a few large dents and wrinkles he has left in his competitors’ sheet metal -- on the NASCAR brotherhood.

Just a few minutes removed from the jet-black and green electric glow-colored wedge of flying aluminum/steel tubing/metal/carbon fiber/rubber that is the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Camry, Kelly was sitting alone in the Kyle Busch Motorsports hauler. I hit him with the following, and he hit me back.

Owen, in the last practice session today only a former NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and multi-time Sprint Cup race winner (Brian Vickers), a former Formula 1 world championship contender (Nelson Piquet Jr.) and former IndyCar Rookie of the Year (AJ Allmendinger) were faster than you. In fact, you were faster than three-time IndyCar champion, San Hornish Jr. -- and he who grew-up right near this place. How did you like the track? Is there anything similar to it down in Australia?

Not really. It’s a cool little racetrack. It’s really tight over the back so it’s going to be really hard to pass. That’s going to make it all interesting. Track position is going to be really important. We’re having a good time so far. We went to make a mock qualifying run in that last practice and then there was a caution so didn’t really get make a proper run at it. Even so, we’re pretty confident in what we’ve got and what we’re going to have for the race.

In late June you drove one burner of a race at the Nationwide round at Road America. I mean anything that could go wrong, did go wrong in Wisconsin, but you still ran an amazing fourth. You were like the man who refused to die out there!

Yeah, we’d been at the front all weekend, and we qualified on the front row. Then when we ran out of gas. We went back to 34th; I knew we could fight our way back up through there and get us a good finish. Then, man, we had to pit again and went back to 23rd. We just ran out of laps. We got back to fourth, though. I was just getting back what was rightfully ours! (Laughter)

If the cards would have fallen a bit better or the wind might have been blowing a different direction, could you have won that one?

Yeah, we definitely had a shot to win that one. We were right there with AJ (Allmendinger). I was just being real conservative early on when we led for a while. AJ led for a while, and we led for a while. We were just playing in real conservative and looking after our stuff, knowing that they always have those Green-White Checkereds in the end of that race. We were just being careful, but the whole plan changed when we ran out of gas. Then we really had to get on with it then.

Did you receive any sort of positive feedback after the race?

Yeah, we did. James Finch actually called me and hired me to drive his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at Watkins Glen last week. So that was a direct result of what we did at Road America, and I guess that’s about as good a compliment as you can get after a race. We went up there and ran the Cup race, and that was a huge amount of fun and quite awe-inspiring racing out there with those dudes. It was great.

In 2013, and as far as the Nationwide race and the Cup race, it has been a baptism by fire for you out there in NASCAR-land. How does this bump-and-grind American-style of racing compare with that of the Australian V8 Supercar series? I’d assume that it’s pretty wild…

Yeah, it is wild. I’d prefer NASCAR, for sure. There are too many rules and regulations in V8 Supercar. You know, somebody just lands on someone else’s door, and there’s an investigation and then somebody ends up with a $5,000 fine because they’ve knocked somebody else’s rear off. It’s always that sort of business so that’s what I enjoy about NASCAR -- it’s just pure gloves-off racing. They leave it up to the drivers to sort it out on the racetrack, which works pretty good, I think.

How are the NASCAR guys to you? You’re obviously a pretty new dude out there…

Everyone’s been good, you know? It’s been nice. Kurt Busch helped me with some stuff at Watkins Glen and AJ Allmendinger did also. And, obviously, Marcos Ambrose helped me out, too. Everyone has been good. It’s been refreshing.

While you were racing, did the “gloves-off” concept of racing take a while to adjust to, or was it more like, “OK, I see how it’s going to be…’?

I knew everyone had the gloves off pretty much at the start (laughter). We knew what we were in for a spin. I was probably a bit too conservative at Road America and I got cleaned up a couple of times, but we managed to keep things straight and keep it all happening. Yeah, we knew what we were in for and we were up for the challenge. It was all good fun.

How do you compare a 358-cubic inch, 650-horsepower V8-motivated 3,400-pound Nationwide car with a 5.0-liter, 635-horsepower-shoved 3,086-pound V8 Supercar?

Well… a Supercar is lighter and there is less power, but it’s also wider and it has a little bigger wheels. The Supercar is more nimble than a Nationwide car, but they’re very hard to turn because they have a fixed rear-end -- they have a Spool in the rear-end. A Nationwide car or a Cup car is actually quite good to turn because of the different rear-end. They’ve both got their strengths. A NASCAR on a road course is actually pretty good to drive. They’re very heavy, and they take a lot of stopping. That’s probably the biggest difference -- trying to get a NASCAR slowed down is a hard thing to do. It’s like trying to stop a train.

Apparently, it’s been a lifelong dream of yours to get to NASCAR. True?

Yeah, it is. I’ve been a big NASCAR fan since I was a kid. My dad was a dirt Late Model racer so there was always Stock Car Racing magazine laying around the house. That’s always been my major interest. I was a big Davey Allison fan when I was a kid. To actually come over here and do some racing and do some NASCAR and start a Cup race has been really cool.

What type of relationship do you have with your Down Under Brother, Marcos Ambrose?

We’re buddies. We’ve been racing against each other since we were about 9 years old. We raced each other in go-karts. We grew-up about an hour away from each other. We’ve known each other a long time. He’s certainly been a help to me wherever he can over here in America. He’s been good.

How did Kyle Busch find you?

Last year, I qualified Kyle’s car at Montreal. That’s where I got to know him. That came about because I did the same thing for Marcos the year before.

How do you guys get along?

We get along really good. Kyle is a great dude. A cool guy.

What’s he thought of your driving thus far?

I think he’s been pretty happy so far. The big thing for the team, and obviously we’re trying to win the race, but we all need to keep in mind that the team is going after the owners championship across the year. We’ve got to keep that in mind and just make sure we get solid top five if we can’t win the race. We have to make sure we get it to the finish the best that we can and keep the results rolling in.

What’s the master plan for Saturday?

We’re going to qualify up front and we’re definitely going to try and win it, but we’ve definitely got to finish the race, too. That’s the plan for tomorrow.

Anything else you want to throw in here?

No. I think we go it all covered.


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