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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with J.J. Yeley

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J.J. Yeley has been going to race tracks since he was barely two weeks old.

That’s what happens when your dad, “Cactus” Jack Yeley, is a seven-time Arizona Midget Racing Association and two-time World of Outlaws midget champion.

At 40, J.J. Yeley is in his 13th year of competing in NASCAR. Yeley, who has also raced in the Indianapolis 500 and is a USAC Triple Crown winner, got his start racing midgets in his home state of Arizona at the age of 16 … actually,  make that 14.

J.J. Yeley drives during qualifying for the Xfinity Series at Kentucky Speedway on July 7, 2017 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images).

“I started racing at an age than I was legally allowed to, I guess,” Yeley told NBC Sports. “I had some very fancy documentation that showed I was older than I really was and that allowed me to start racing two years earlier than I was supposed to.”

Did any of the proper officials become aware of his “fancy documentation”?

“Well, it is funny because my mom was actually the president of the midget association. She was aware,” Yeley said. “My parents made sure we had the insurance that was going to be necessary so the tracks or someone wouldn’t be held liable for me obviously not being of age. I think I was the first minor to be emancipated in the state of Arizona, again just to make sure we were doing everything we possibly could knowing I was younger than I was supposed to be.”

Now Yeley, a former Joe Gibbs Racing driver, is one of the grizzled veterans on the Xfinity circuit. Heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, he and his TriStar Motorsports teams are 14th in the points two weeks after he placed his No. 14 car sixth at Iowa Speedway for their first top-10 of the season.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC SPORTS: You made your first Xfinity start on March 6, 2004 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Since then you’ve made 555 total NASCAR starts. Could you have imagined back in March 2004 you’d have been able to be in this sport for 555 starts across all three national series?

Yeley: Probably not. That’s not one of those things you look forward to. It’s still hard to believe I’ve been racing in NASCAR for I think this is my 13th year. I know I hear some drivers complain about the schedule and the things that come along with it. Luckily and thankfully I’m still not to that point. I’m 40 years old. I feel like I’m in better shape now than I’ve probably ever been. I spend more time focusing on my health and what I eat vs. probably what I used to. … I look forward to every week getting to the race track and getting behind the wheel of a race car. I’m not thinking about how many starts I’m going to have as man, I want to win one of these dang races. I’ve finished everywhere but (first), I’ve had some fantastic opportunities that I unfortunately had slip away and I think to some of those events, those guys wanted it more than me.

I can remember back to getting beat by Clint Bowyer at Memphis and it was a matter of we kept having restarts and he kept doing everything in the world that was crazy that according to a rule book that he should have been punished by. But he still did them and he didn’t get penalized and he won the race and I lost by a car length. David Gilliland moved me out of the way at Kentucky when I had a car that was dominant. Even those are events that happened years and years ago, those are races I should’ve won, that I could’ve won and for whatever small reason, I finished second. To think, especially now that you’ve told me I’ve participated in so many races and to not have won, I still have that drive to go out there and do that.

NBC SPORTS: I know this has probably been a difficult couple of weeks with the passing of TriStar’s owner, Mark Smith. How close were you with him after two years of racing for him?

Yeley: We weren’t overly close. Mark had been battling some back issues before I had come to TriStar. I knew Mark was heavily involved with his team being a family-run program. He was basically at the race track every week and if it was taking care of his race team or overlooking his engine program, having some of those issues kept him very limited to where if usually I needed to see him or talk with him it was either done over the phone or I go up to the engine shop and talk with him. He was just such an easy guy to get along with. He just wanted to do whatever was going to be best for the team and always wanted to be fair. As a race car driver having an owner like that, it’s hard to ask for anyone other than that to be in that type of situation.

NBC Sports: Was it important for you and the team to get that sixth-place finish at Iowa in the wake of his death?

Yeley: Absolutely. Mark always had a saying, ‘Let’s end this day on a high note.’ That was something we heard quite often. We have it now in the trailer above my locker and to know again that something like that would happen and everyone would push on and to get the finish and kind of have the breaks and luck and things go along, it was almost like he was up there looking over us. Obviously, would have loved to be able to win that race but there at the last restart, I had a fender rub and kind of put it into protection mode just to make sure we didn’t cut a tire and ruin what was going to be a great finish. It meant a lot for the team and obviously a huge push for the program and then unfortunately we were knocked back into reality with that part failure last weekend in Watkins Glen.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Yeley: My first vehicle was a 1980 Chevy pickup truck that my dad painted Corvette yellow. It had a 383 small block and it was loud and fast. You could hear me coming from a mile away, which I’m pretty sure that was by design because you could tell when I came home and when I left home.

NBC Sports: Why yellow?

Yeley: At the time my race cars were Corvette yellow. It was actually an old diesel pickup truck that we had kind of rebuilt as a father-son (project) in the driveway. I believe it was a matter of we had some leftover paint, so that was a reason. If it wasn’t loud you could definitely see it coming from a couple of miles away. 

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a street car or race car?

Yeley: Actually, this year was probably one of the first years we’ve done that. When we have unsponsored races we’ve been calling the car ‘Black Betty’ after the old song. A friend of mine, that’s his favorite tune. We have a little decal that goes in the car for every time that we run it flat black. ‘Black Betty’ was alive and well there in Iowa.

NBC Sports: What’s the weirdest piece of merchandise you’ve ever had your face or name on?

Yeley: A gentleman had a photo of me flipping in Las Vegas in a sprint car of all things and it was on his forearm. He wanted me to sign it because he wanted to have my autograph tattooed into the photo. I can’t remember if it was just a cool picture of me flipping but that was something where there’s one gentleman roaming around the world that (has a picture) on his forearm of me flipping a sprint car violently at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports: What does JJ stand for?

Yeley: It stands for Jimmy Jack. … It is initials from my dad, Jack, and his best friend, who is basically my uncle, Jimmy. My real name is Christopher. When I was born in 1976, I was a Cesarean (birth), so obviously that took awhile. My mom wanted me to be Sean Michael, my dad wanted me to be Anthony Joseph after AJ Foyt. Obviously, there was a point there where my mom was pregnant and they hadn’t figured this out. They were at odds with each other, so while I was in the process of being birthed, my dad and Jimmy would take turns to see my mom while the other would go back out into the lobby. They would change hats and they had some glasses, they were always pretending to be the other. So that’s where I got the J.J.

NBC Sports: Who actually calls you Christopher?

Yeley: Realistically, the only person in my entire life that’s called me Christopher was my grandmother. She passed away last year. Or when I was in grade school, I went by Chris. Other than that, anybody that knew me outside of school, if it was a friend, anything, I’ve been J.J. my entire life.

NBC Sports: If you could have a one-on-one race with any driver, past or present, on any course and in any type of car, what would be your dream arrangement?

Yeley: I’ve always been a huge fan of the racers back in the 60s, mainly because that’s when race car drivers were real race car drivers, you know. T-shirts, leather helmets and unfortunately a lot of great race car drivers lost their lives almost on a weekly basis. To get to back and race on dirt against the likes of an A.J. Foyt, a Parnelli Jones, Jud Larson, I don’t know that I could just pick one. But to get to participate against a field of drivers that ultimately raced the same way I feel now, where they gave 100 percent and if they gave their life doing it, then so be it. It would be a dirt race somewhere back in the 60s.

NBC Sports: What’s the last song you got stuck in your head?

Yeley: It would be a Cody Jinx song. I think it’s “Thunder and Rain.” (“Loud and Heavy”) … It’s more like country (music). He would be like a Waylon Jennings, a newer version. … Good friends with my crew chief, Wally. They have some pretty catchy tunes if you’re more an older type of country guy. It’s more like a Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings kind of era.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

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William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

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Woman arrested for stalking, intimidation, terroristic mischief vs. Tony Stewart, family

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A Florida woman who allegedly felt spurned when Tony Stewart did not give her an autograph is under arrest and facing several felony charges including intimidation, stalking and terroristic mischief.

Sixty-eight year old Kathi Kathleen Russell – who also goes by the name Mary Kathleen Russell – of Cape Coral, Florida, is being held in the Lee County, Fla. Jail, awaiting extradition to Marion County, Indiana to face those charges – as well as violating an order of protection.

Kathi Kathleen Russell (Photo courtesy Lee County, Florida Sheriffs Office)

Russell’s arrest and the charges against her was first reported by Indianapolis TV station WRTV.

According to the criminal complaint and probable cause affidavit cited by WRTV, Russell allegedly harassed Stewart, his family and employees from March 2016 through last month after he did not sign a piece of memorabilia at an unspecified race she attended. Among the things Russell is accused of:

* Made a total of 333 phone calls to Stewart, his mother, sister, sponsors and several of his businesses, according to WRTV. Those calls came at all hours of the day and night, according to the complaint.

* Many of those calls were also allegedly threatening in nature, according to the WRTV report. Russell is also accused of playing threatening audio clips and song clips during several of those calls, according to the complaint and WRTV’s on-air and online stories.

* On Sept. 27, according to the WRTV reports, Russell allegedly sent an envelope containing a white powder to the Indianapolis office of Stewart’s attorneys, Ice Miller LLP. The scare prompted the evacuation of the One America Building in downtown Indianapolis, which houses Ice Miller’s offices. The white powder was eventually determined to be baking soda, according to WRTV’s online report.

NBC Sports reached out to Stewart. In an email reply, a spokesman for the former NASCAR Cup driver and current co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing said: “We’re going to decline comment and let the legal process run its course.”

It’s unclear when Russell will be extradited to Indiana to face the charges against her. NBC Sports reached out to the Marion County (Indiana) Superior Court, Marion County Sheriff’s Office and Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, but has not received replies as yet.

Questions and answers about NASCAR’s pit crew cut, at-track roster limits

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NASCAR announced Wednesday a reduction in pit crew members and limits to the at-track rosters beginning in 2018. Here’s a look at what that means and other questions about the changes.

What is NASCAR doing?

NASCAR will cut pit crew members from six to five. NASCAR will set limits on how many team members can be at the track, starting next season.

Why the change?

It’s viewed as a cost-cutting method for most teams, although some small teams likely won’t save much money because they typically don’t reach the limits that will be set. NASCAR will make crew lists available to help promote these people. NASCAR also views reducing the number of pit crew members as a safety factor by having fewer crew members go over the wall.

What position will be eliminated on the pit crew?

Likely a tire carrier position. What you probably will see is a tire changer carry their own tire. So, a pit crew in 2018 likely will have two tire changers, a jackman, a tire carrier and a fueler.

Anything else different about the pit crew for 2018?

Yes, a fueler can only fuel the car. No longer can a fueler help remove a tire or make adjustments to the car.

How much will this slow pit stops?

We’ve yet to see, but it is likely to slow the stop. As the season progresses, teams will become more proficient in what they do but it seems those 10-second pit stops are gone.

Any other changes on pit road for 2018?

Yes. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Wednesday morning that series officials are looking at teams using a standardized pit gun to change tires with in 2018. Teams are responsible for their own pit guns and more effort has been put into that area in recent years. Teams have had engineers dedicated to making pit guns faster to provide an advantage. A standardized pit gun will take away that advantage some teams have.

What about these crew limits?

In Cup, teams will be limited to 20 or 21 people per car. For an organization that has one or two Cup cars, it will be allowed to have three people in the organizational category, 12 in the roster category and five pit crew members. For an organization with more than two cars, they can have four organization people. Cup teams will be able to have an additional road crew position for the three road courses and Indianapolis.

So what are the classifications: Organizational, road crew and pit crew?

Organizational category includes the competition director, team manager, technical director, IT specialists, etc.

Road crew category includes crew chief, car chief, engineers, mechanics, shock specialist, tire specialist and aero specialists.

Pit crew category includes the over-the-wall members.

What about the limits for Xfinity and Truck teams?

Xfinity and Trucks teams will be allowed one organizational member each and five pit crew members each. Xfinity teams will be allowed up to seven road crew members. Truck teams will be allowed up to six road crew members. Xfinity teams get an additional road crew member for up to 10 races. They can choose the 10 races. Truck teams are allowed an additional road crew member for up to five races. They can choose which races.

Who is exempt from these lists?

Team executives, public relations personnel, etc. The crew limits are for those who directly work on the vehicle.

At Homestead, a crew member from Kyle Busch’s team worked on Martin Truex Jr.’s car after he hit the wall in practice. Will that still be allowed?

For that to happen in 2018, the crew member would have to be listed on the roster for both teams. Otherwise, they would not be allowed to work on the car. If they did, it would be a penalty.

What is the penalty for a crew member working on a car they’re not assigned to?

That has yet to be determined, but O’Donnell said: “It will have some teeth to it. I think the teams and NASCAR are in agreement that this is something that we want to work for all the race teams and there needs to be a penalty behind this when it is violated. We’ll make that clear to the media and the fans as we head into (the 2018 season).

What happens when there is a crew chief suspension or car chief suspension or other team member suspension? Will the team be able to replace that position or will they lose a spot for each suspension on its at-track limit?

This also is to be determined, O’Donnell said. He added: “Still working through some of those details. We’ll have prior to the Daytona 500 … what the final aspects are.’’

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Oh, baby: Ty and Haley Dillon welcome first child, daughter Oakley Ray

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Brothers Austin and Ty Dillon have long called Richard Childress “pop pop” as an affectionate alternative term for “grandfather.”

But as of Tuesday, Childress may soon come to be called “great pop pop,” as Ty and wife Haley announced the birth of their first child – and Childress’ first great grandchild.

Daughter Oakley Ray Dillon weighed in at nine pounds, eight ounces, and was 21.5 inches long, according to an Instagram post by Haley.

“Our baby girl waited just in time for her daddy to get home from Homestead to make her grand entrance,” Haley wrote in her post.

Ty Dillon recently agreed to a contract extension to continue driving the No. 13 Chevrolet for Germain Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Four other NASCAR drivers and their wives or girlfriends will soon be part of the NASCAR baby boom.

Brittany and Joey Logano are expecting their first child in January, while DeLana and Kevin Harvick are expecting their second child the same month.

Due in May is the first child for Amy and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the second child for Katelyn Sweet and Kyle Larson.

NASCAR reduces pit crew members, sets at-track roster limits for 2018

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NASCAR will enforce crew limits for its three national series next season and reduce how many will go over the wall, the sanctioning body announced Wednesday.

Pit crews will be reduced from six to five beginning next season as part of a cost-cutting measure for teams.

Rosters will be divided into three categories: Organizational, road crew and pit crew.

Organizational includes the competition director, team manager, technical director, IT specialists, etc. Cup organizations with no more than two cars will be limited to three people in this category. Cup organizations with more than two cars will be allowed four people in this category. In Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series, each team will be limited to one person in this position.

Road crew includes the crew chief, car chief, engineers, mechanics, shock specialist, tire specialist and aero specialists. Cup teams will be limited to 12 people. Xfinity teams will be limited to seven people, and Camping World Truck Series teams will be limited to six. Cup teams will be allowed an additional road crew spot at road courses and at Indianapolis. Xfinity teams will be allowed an additional road crew spot at up to 10 races. Truck teams will be allowed an additional road crew spot at up to five races.

Pit crew represents over-the-wall crew members. Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams will be limited to five individuals. Also, NASCAR announced that the fueler can only perform the task of fueling the vehicle beginning next season. Previously, fuelers could help with removing the left rear tire, making adjustments or some other role if the team was not fueling the car on a stop.

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