TALLADEGA, Ala. -- JJ Yeley has competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2004 but many have forgotten that he earned his first bit of mainstream attention in 1998, competing in open-wheel cars in the Indy Racing League.
At the time, Yeley was a young 20-something out of the USAC Sprint Car ranks and had little experience on asphalt. He explained that he was both unprepared for Indy cars and never felt as though the discipline was a good fit for his career.
With that said, Yeley acknowledges that the spotlight did give him the exposure that no other form of racing could at the time and that it helped him eventually find his way over to NASCAR.
"When I first got the opportunity to go run the IRL, that was when they were really pushing to get back to grassroots and trying to get open-wheel short track Americans back to the sport," Yeley told SB Nation on Friday evening. "If it wouldn't have been for that push, I wouldn't have been able to get the opportunity.
"I didn't have much sponsorship -- I didn't even have that much pavement experience before I got the call and the chance to run the IRL. I think the Indianapolis 500 might have been my fifth or sixth time ever on pavement."
Yeley won the 1997 edition of Indiana Sprint Week and was the USAC Sprint Car Rookie of the Year in that same season. Despite his obvious talent, Yeley says the IRL car drove unlike anything he had ever competed in. He had just one top-10 in eight starts with an average finish of 19.8.
"It was a great learning experience," Yeley said. "But those cars -- turning them was unlike anything I've ever dealt with coming from midgets and sprint cars. And it really wasn't my kind of fit, I guess. But it was the first opportunity that came along because I got to run the Indianapolis 500.
"I got to run 10 or 11 races for some smaller budgeted teams but it wasn't a lot of fun."
Yeley drove for the underfunded Sinden and Byrd-McCormack Racing organizations and said that the cars were often difficult to drive. He said that Tony Stewart once advised him to not demand more from the car than it will give, because it would only end in disaster.
"And that was completely different than how you learn to drive a Midget or Sprint Car," Yeley said. "There, you can kind of take control and find a new line to make it work. But in an Indy car you're only going to bust your butt. And I learned the hard way too."
Yeley says he hasn't received any offers from an IndyCar Series team since reunification and added that he doesn't keep up with the sport like he used to. He wishes the sport the best of luck but he's moved on from that stage of his career, despite so many former open-wheelers starting to go back.
"I know that they are not as mainstream as they use to be," Yeley said. "The drivers have changed and the cars have changed. It's a different kind of IRL than it used to be. Obviously, I'm still a huge racing fan and I watch some of the races -- I just don't keep up with it the way that I did before."