JJ Yeley Golden Corral

Yeley sits 13th in points entering Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400

LAS VEGAS -- Parked on the far side of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s famous Neon Garage is a fittingly bright spot among the small teams and underdogs.

Driver J.J. Yeley, a former USAC champ who is still doggedly plying his way in the NASCAR establishment, couldn’t be more upbeat about the start of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

Essentially overlooked in the Daytona 500 history-making "Danica Mania" and Jimmie Johnson triumph, was Yeley’s own super achieving moment -- a 10th-place finish for the small, under-funded, super-committed Tommy Baldwin Racing team. In NASCAR’s biggest race of the year, Yeley bettered six former series champs and seven former 500 winners.

If not for a last-lap move that backfired on him, Yeley might have finished seventh. Either way, he delivered on his car sponsor Golden Corral’s season pledge for kids to eat free on Monday when Yeley earns a top-10 in the four superspeedway races (at Daytona and Talladega). 

"So as a race-car driver I was disappointed because I thought I could have been seventh instead of 10th," Yeley explained. "But it’s been a good start and I know it’s helped the momentum of the team with some of the negotiations with the sponsors we have and with some we’re trying to work on to get some races throughout the year.

"So, so far everything has been really good."

Entering Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas, Yeley (who finished 28th at Phoenix last week) is ranked 13th in the championship standings -- 10 points behind 10th-place Aric Almirola and several positions ahead of preseason favorites Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

To this, Yeley smiles but shakes his head in a cautionary gesture.

"I do (enjoy hearing that), but I know as time goes by they’ll chip away and it’s probably going to reverse," Yeley said. "That’s just reality. But we’re going to continue working hard; we’re not giving up.

"Ultimately in this sport it’s all about consistency. It gives TBR that much more credibility when we perform like this."

And the timing is significant. The introduction of the Generation-6 car has equalized the playing field initially until one organization figures out a competitive advantage. This is when smaller teams stand the best chance of running alongside -- and in front -- of the larger operations.

"As time goes by, the bigger teams will find those little things that make a difference because they have more resources," Yeley said. "There will be a bit more of a separation. But for our team, the first part of the year, this is when we can do our best because it’s a little more of a level playing field."

Unlike NASCAR’s larger uber-teams, a top result for Yeley and TBR teammate Dave Blaney directly translates into improved resources.  

The team started with six employees five years ago and doubled last year’s 25-person payroll to 50 this season. Chevrolet has increased its technical commitment meaning increased time in the wind tunnel and more engineering help.

And while kids across the country were eating free at Golden Corral the day after the Daytona 500, the phones were ringing anew at the team’s North Carolina headquarters.

"Being a small team, obviously we have a lot of advantages the bigger teams don’t," Yeley said. "We can put together small race packages for sponsors that really honestly can’t afford to go to some of the bigger teams.

"There are a lot of companies out there that can see the net worth of NASCAR, it’s just a matter of convincing the people in their company, and it’s been a little more difficult to write a huge check. Because of that I think we can capitalize on a lot of the sponsors that want to come in and enjoy being in the sport but can’t afford to do it on a level that some of the bigger teams do."

"I’ve been on both sides," Yeley continued. "I’ve been with big teams that have really good sponsorship and then I’ve been with small teams that had no sponsors that are just barely being able to survive. Because of that, I have more compassion for the sponsors that can afford to be there and benefit."

As business savvy as Yeley is, however, he knows it all comes down to performance and that’s what encourages him so much about Baldwin’s operation.

A former Cup crew chief who won the 2002 Daytona 500 with driver Ward Burton, Baldwin is a racer first and foremost. And scaling back expectations with his small, new team has been an exercise in patience and persistence.

Despite Yeley’s impressive Daytona performance, the team goals remain modest: top-20 finishes and limited damage to the equipment.

"Top-20s nowadays are like top-10s twenty years ago," Baldwin said. "There’s just so many good cars. Top-20s are a realistic goal and we’d like to finish between 26 and 30th in points this year."

Just saying that aloud, however, is a fundamental mind-shift for the ultra-competitive Baldwin who as a crew chief wasn’t afraid to confront another crew chief on pit road when he felt his team was wronged.

"I get really mad on Sundays," Baldwin said of not being able to challenge for race wins yet.

"It takes a good two hours after the race to pull my racing hat off and put my business hat on and get back the focus on our goals and where we have to be financially and the things we have to be and who we have to take care of.

"I bite my tongue a lot," he said with a smile. "But we’re realists, we understand what we’re doing and what we’re trying to build on and that’s fine. It’s good for us because we’re doing well. We’re attracting a lot of attention on the business side. We have a lot of partners and we have a lot of people we’re talking to.

"I’m a realist I know all this takes time to do it right. We’re just methodically working trying to work our way to get better every year."