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Cheers, James Finch, you've earned it!


James Finch (L) celebrating with rookie sensation Brad Keselowski in Talladega's victory lane after Sunday's dramatic victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   James Finch -- this fun-loving (hell, yes!), controversial, party-till-dawn NASCAR team owner – has been at it for more than 20 years now, and he's loved every minute of it.
   And now the biggest win of his career.
   Finch has long been a feisty sort, and often a thorn in NASCAR's side because of his willingness to buck the establishment, to tell it like it is, to rip on a bad call, consequences be damned. And he's got his share of bum calls for his efforts.
   But men like Finch – too few of them in this sport these days – have been the heart of NASCAR over the years.
   And this sport could use a lot more like him.
   If it weren't for the high-drama crash at the finish, rookie Brad Keselowski's win in Sunday's Talladega 500 would have been really rockin'.
   But with fans in the stands hit by shrapnel from Carl Edwards' car after it flipped into the catch-fencing and then onto the roof of Ryan Newman's car, there was a somber note Sunday amid the celebration.
   Yet Keselowski not only showed surprising poise on the track – in only his fifth Cup tour start, and in a showdown with hard-driving Carl Edwards for the win – Keselowski also showed impressive poise in his post-race interviews….under extremely difficult circumstances, and under intense scrutiny.
   Keselowski, who just got the braces off his teeth a year ago, is only 25, and his career is still quite young. From the legendary Keselowski racing family (Bob's his father, Ron's his uncle), Brad showed up in NASCAR about a year ago, a pick by Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his own Nationwide team. Earnhardt has struggled as a NASCAR team owner, and not all his driver picks have panned out, and the money has been in short supply for race cars. So by the time Earnhardt picked Keselowski for his cars, it was more for economic reasons than anything – Keselowski wasn't tearing up equipment.
   This season Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick, impressed enough with Keselowski's runs last season on the Nationwide tour to step it up this season by letting him run half a dozen or so Cup races too, have put together a scrambled eggs package of cars and races.
   And for the Cup side, Hendrick and Earnhardt picked Finch…who has good stuff, if not great stuff, who has fun at all this and yet a very knowledgeable and highly respected owner.
   But this weekend's Richmond 400 was not on the Keselowski-Finch Cup schedule.
   However, if the Richmond promoters don't bringing this bunch front and center, well, they'd be missing a heck of an opportunity…because Finch is a man with a thousand stories. And every one has a classic punch line.
    Like that Spring Break party down in Florida……
   Well, Finch does have one of the sport's more interesting sponsors, the Miccosukee Indian tribe's Gaming and Resort operation, in Miami. http://www.miccosukee.com/

At Talladega you can get as close to the action as your little ol' heart can stand (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Marc Reno, the crew chief in this deal, is quite a character too. The kind of old school guy who likes to have fun with it. Reno, who worked with Robert Yates and Ernie Irvan back when, knows how to win, and this wasn't a fluke. But opportunities like this don't come along that often: "So I'm actually still in a little bit in shock here. 
   "We knew we could run in the top-10 in these races…done it at Daytona a couple times. 
   "But we probably didn't have it in our vocabulary here….and we didn't work on our victory lane stuff really well."
   Reno laughed.
   "So it's pretty neat.
    "I'm excited for James because he's been in the sport for a lot of years, more so than the owners around here, and spent his own money….excited to get him the win."
    Finch himself took it in stride, but made the poignant note to one of the men who helped him get to this point in his career: "This win is the best thing to ever happen to me. 
   "And I'd really like to dedicate this race to Neil Bonnett's family.  Neil died in my car in '94 trying to do what we did today. 
    "I would really like to dedicate this to them…and everybody that helped me throughout the years.
    "I've had several drivers (Sterling Marlin, for one, just last week at Phoenix, and Mike Wallace too at times). I raced with Brad's dad years back….    
    "First time I seen (fellow car owner) Bill Davis, he was gassing for Mark Martin, and Mark Martin was 15 years old, and we were at a short track…
   "But Rick Hendrick, he's the one that helped me here.
    "I said 'Well, Rick, I need to get me a driver. I keep using the older ones -- and the older ones, they want to slide back in the rocking chair and get paid at the end of the race.'
   "So Rick said 'Why don't we try to do something with Brad?' And I said I would love to.
    "I really thank Rick for helping me and Brad.

James Finch (L) and winner Brad Keselowski made things exciting Sunday at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"I've run a third, a fourth, a ninth, a 12th at Daytona as an independent…and I've always dreamed about winning one of these races. 
    "So I would race a while, work a while, build up some money, and then comeback and race. 
     "Some people try and do it the other way, and 'Bam!' in a year or so, they have to fold up, because it's really, really expensive to do this.
     "Winston Cup racing, or Sprint racing, is the hardest racing in the world. I've won 400 or more short track races, but I would trade all of those for one of these races.  That's how hard they are to win.
      "My team has not won in, like, three years -- We won a Busch race three years ago in Milwaukee, and I said then 'I don't know if I'm ever going to win another race.'"
    Finch has been running NASCAR for 21 years, with more than 500 starts in the Saturday Nationwide/Busch series, with four wins at Daytona. And he runs maybe a dozen Cup events a year.
    "I like to race, and Winston Cup racing is so expensive -- or Sprint car racing -- so I have to watch what I'm doing, money-wise.
     "But I just love to race --  I had a car in the ARCA race Friday, I had a car in the Busch race Saturday, and won the race today.
     "I ran 40th Saturday (with Mike Wallace); burned up the motor, which was not real good. And wrecked Friday.
    "And won today. 
    "So that's what's racing is about."
   Finch, in the construction business, working out of Panama City, Fla., has two dozen on his crew for the full-time Nationwide and part-time Cup programs.  "And we help out someone on the ARCA car every once in awhile. I've had a lot of people help me, so we try and pass it down to some of these kids in the ARCA series, because there's no testing (in Cup)."
   Finch points out the economics of NASCAR racing are sometimes more art than science: "We were up at Rockingham once…and they didn't have enough cars. So I said 'Let's get a Cup car and come in and start the race and try and get the purse money.
   "We won the (Busch) race on Saturday and got like $16,000 for first place…and we started the race on Sunday and got $74,000. 
   "It's not like we were robbing NASCAR, we were just trying to help out."
   And Finch laughed.
   "I'm one of the few regular independents. Some of them come in and race a few races and leave because it's so expensive, and there's no glory. I mean it's a long time since I've had a trophy…and I thank Brad I got one here."
    So what's next for Keselowski himself?
     Well, probably a long talk with a lawyer. He doesn't really have a contract.
    "I don't even understand…I'm no lawyer…and I don't know where I'm at, to be honest," Keselowski says.
    "I know I don't have anything locked in.  That's really all I can say: I don't have a ride secured for next year. 
     "I don't have a job secured for next year.
     "Everything to this point has been wait-and-see. 
      "I know this certainly can't hurt.
      "To be honest, I've put it off myself, personally, because I don't even know what I want to do.  I feel like I'm ready to run at this level full time, and hopefully there are some that agree with that now. It's a matter of getting on the right teams, with the right sponsorship, and all the stars aligning.
    "And that's not something you can rush."
     Well, maybe now someone can.

Brad Keselowski's first taste of NASCAR champagne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




A new winning team - not just

A new winning team - not just driver - is what this sport has needed for years, having gone since 2002 (Reed Morton/Nelson Bowers) since a new owner won at the Winston Cup level. It's something the sport now needs to sustain - new winning owners and comeback winning owners.

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