J.J. Yeley has seen it all during his brief Sprint Cup career. In 2006, he was chosen by Joe Gibbs as the successor to the organization’s famed No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet, after the team had parted ways with 2000 champion Bobby Labonte. It seemed like Yeley had a bright career ahead of him, yet just three years later, the Arizona native was out of the sport all together, sidelined with a neck injury suffered in a Sprint Bandits Series race at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas.
The road back has been a long and winding one for the now 36-year-old, who bounced from one team to another trying to find the right fit. If the start of the 2013 season is any indication, he may have found it with Tommy Baldwin Racing. Yeley’s 10th place finish in the Great American Race was his first top 10 since the 2008 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in New Hampshire. The performance has both driver and team brimming with confidence as they head into the desert this weekend.
I spoke with Yeley this week about his great Daytona run, his thoughts on the last lap Nationwide wreck, his 2013 goals with TBR and earning a free dinner for kids who visited the Golden Corral this past Monday.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: What are your initial impressions of the new Gen-6 car?
J.J. Yeley: I was pretty impressed with it. For starters, it’s nice to look at. I like the look of every single manufacturer. On the superspeedways, the car ran great by itself. In a pack, they really got light. If you were in the middle and had someone tucked up behind you, it felt like you were almost skimming the race track. There were a couple moments where I felt the car lose grip and jump sideways. You had to be really smooth with the steering wheel so that the car didn’t jump out from underneath you.
If I were to compare it to the last car, the COT or Gen 5 car had a lot more downforce. The Gen 6 car has a lot more “feel” to it; you can definitely tell when cars were around you with this new style.
Lumbis: Was the single line drafting during the race a result of the car? Some were saying that there just needed to be enough drivers to try it in order to make it work. Others were saying that there just needed to be the right cars/drivers to try it. What was your take on the reason for the single groove racing for much of the event?
Yeley: I think it had to do with the fact that you had a lot more to lose by trying it and hoping someone was going to go with you and because of that, many got complacent just riding in that upper groove. I tried the lower line a couple of times and I always ended up in the back of the pack. It didn’t matter how good of a run you got, you just couldn’t make any headway.
I absolutely don’t blame the car. If you look back to Talladega, after they just repaved the racetrack a few years ago, we had the same exact kind of racing with the old car. Everyone figured out that the outside had the most momentum and soon enough, you had all 43 cars running in that groove. If I remember correctly, we did that for a good 60 or 70 laps and you could never get more than a few cars to try the bottom.
So I think some of it has to do with how much grip the track had. You also have to consider that tire wear was never an issue. We ran our left sides virtually the entire race. If it had been the Daytona of old, when the track gave up grip, that race last Sunday would have been completely different.
For that reason, I think NASCAR is going to have to look at implementing some changes to the car based on the surfaces we have at Daytona and Talladega because of how smooth they are. They need to find a way to slow these cars down so that it makes it easier to get a draft.
Lumbis: What were your thoughts at about the accident at the end of the Nationwide race involving Kyle Larson’s car and the grandstands? Does more need to be done in terms of protecting the fans? Or is this more of a freak accident?
Yeley: In my opinion, the fence did its job. I know there is a lot of concern about the how easily the cars came apart. Obviously, every driver walked away, including Kyle Larson, who had one of the nastiest looking wrecks I’ve seen in that series. If they made the car that much tougher so that it wouldn’t come a part, the next thing to absorb that energy would be the driver and that is not a good thing.
Looking at the entire wreck, you have to keep in mind that it would not have been that severe if it weren’t the last lap. For example, both Brian Scott and Justin Allgaier said on TV that they weren’t going to lift as they were trying to get the best finish they could. Because of that, when they came through the wreck, it looked like they were running 50-60 mph faster than the other cars involved, which is what helped propel the No. 32 car into the grandstand. If everyone was going the same speed, like during the big wreck that happened about 10 laps before that, it would have been nowhere near as severe.
So to me, the problem is that you had guys racing back to the checkered flag. If the field were frozen at that point, there would be nothing left for them to gain, which would keep them from bulldozing through the wreck. So I think people tend to look at the entire wreck itself and not the key things in the wreck that made it so much more severe.
Lumbis: Doesn’t the restrictor plate style of racing contribute to this problem?
Yeley: If you get rid of the restrictor plates, then you will have fans complaining that there is no excitement. If you don’t have pack racing, I don’t think you’ll have anyone show up at Daytona or Talladega. The fans are there to see door to door action. Just look at the tandem racing. The fans hated it because the field was so spread out. So I don’t think you can take that away and still have the fans show up.
In the end, what needs to happen is that each of these wrecks have to be analyzed to see what we can learn and make things better.
Lumbis: After running a few races with Tommy Baldwin Racing (or TBR affiliated cars) last year, what brought you back to that organization full time in 2013?
Yeley: Tommy understands what it takes to survive. It’s something I have had to figure out over the past three or four years as well. He’s obviously on a very tight budget. We do have some sponsorship for the two cars, but it is still nothing compared to the majority of teams in the sport. I also took into consideration how the Gen 6 car helps level the playing field. Chevrolet has offered a lot more help than they have in the past.
So when I sat down with Tommy to understand what his goals were, for me, the choice was really a no-brainer. There were a few other options I could have taken for the season. For me though, it was just a matter of sitting down and making a list of the positives and negatives for each option and nothing could touch what Tommy is doing.
So far, the decision has paid off. This was the first week for me working with crew chief Joe Lax. I haven’t worked with a lot of crew chiefs throughout my career, but I can already tell that Joe and I are on the same page. He is very easy to talk to and he understands the feedback I’m giving him. So I’m pretty excited to move forward and work on this Gen 6 car.
Lumbis: The No. 36 team currently has sponsorship for 13 races. What is your status for the rest of the events this year? Will you be starting and parking or going the distance?
Yeley: Right now, the great start at Daytona helps tremendously. Tommy has already discussed adding some races, even if we don’t have sponsorship, although we want to get as many sponsored as possible. We will evaluate each race from there. For example, Sonoma is not a great paying race and it is expensive to go to. So that could be a start and park event, but obviously we don’t want to have to do that for any race. Once we get to the point in the season where sponsorship is light, we’ll have to make some of those decisions. If we’re in a pretty high position in points, I’m pretty sure Tommy will do everything he can to keep us racing.
Lumbis: Given that your team is still very much searching for additional support, what can you tell a potential sponsor about TBR and why it would be good fit for them?
Yeley: We would be a great fit for anyone who wanted to come into the sport because we give them a lot more attention than they would get with some of the larger teams. I think part of the problem right now is that a sponsor will come in and sign with a big team thinking that is necessary to bring in more clients or achieve a nice return on their investment. But some of them don’t always get the greatest return because the amount of money they bring in affects their pecking order with that team. As a result, they will leave the sport when their contract is up.
Tommy, having been with bigger teams, understands this concept. So I think we can give a sponsor a lot more value than a lot of these bigger teams are willing to give. TBR also has a lot less overhead, we are able to operate on a smaller budget than some of the bigger names which gives us additional flexibility as well.
Lumbis: Going back to a “normal” race weekend is always challenging after having weeks to prepare for Daytona. Is it an even bigger challenge this year because of the learning curve with the new car?
Yeley: I think there are a number of things combined with the new car that will make this weekend a little more challenging. The racetrack there was recently re-configured, and teams are still trying to figure it out. On top of that, practice is going to be very limited as I think we have only an hour and a half of practice or so before we qualify. I think trying to adjust to these factors plus the new car could put us a little behind. Being a two car team will help us try more things than some of the single car teams can try, so we’ll be okay.
Lumbis: Phoenix is your hometown track. How does the home crowd make Phoenix a special place for you?
Yeley: Anytime I return to Phoenix, it’s just a really cool experience. When I walk across the stage during driver intros, the amount of cheers I get gives me a good feeling. It shows that all of my fans from Arizona, as well as members of my family that are still out there, are there to support me. It gives me even more motivation to go out there on the track to see if I can do better. I feel like I’m Dale Jr. when I’m at Phoenix and get two or three times the reaction I normally get.
Lumbis: You got to enjoy the fruits of your labor when you brought your daughter Faith to Golden Corral for the Kids Eat Free promotion that was run because of your top 10 finish. What was that like for you, getting to experience that firsthand?
Yeley: It was great. After dinner, we went through the fantastic chocolate fountain with some ice cream which Faith loved. The coolest thing was that two kids came up to me to thank me for their dinner. I was taken back, didn’t even know what to say; it was really cool. I loved the fact that because of what we did on Sunday, it allowed so many kids to have a free meal on Monday. Almost every kid I saw walked away with some ice cream or cotton candy and it was a great feeling to know we were a part of it.