Given that he’s an Ohio resident and has made countless trips to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as both a driver and a fan, it’s not surprising Sam Hornish Jr. felt right at home in Saturday’s Xfinity Series qualifying there.
Hornish was fastest of the 40 drivers in the field to earn the pole for this afternoon’s Mid-Ohio Challenge (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
There was one significant incident in the closing laps when Cole Custer wrecked at the end of his qualifying lap. His Ford suffered significant front end damage, and will likely have to go to a backup car for this afternoon’s race.
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.
“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.
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.
The motto that drives Garrett Smithley‘s career is summed up by a decal on the dashboard of every car he races:
“Patience, never give up.”
It’s guided the 25-year-old driver for the last decade since he began driving a Bandolero in Peach Tree City, Georgia, and finished fourth in his first race on Oct. 27, 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the years since, Smithley has won numerous trophies and awards that are spread out over his living room in Kannapolis, North Carolina, his parent’s house in Dallas, Georgia, a golf cart shop in Peach Tree City and both his grandparent’s houses.
But one award, a Rookie of the Year plaque from that first year of racing, means the most to the man who grew up rooting for Dale Jarrett and now drives the No. 0 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“I think it’s just because I was 15 years old when I started racing and that first season I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, neither did my dad,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “Looking back at it, knowing what I know now, I don’t know how we won any races because we had no idea what was going on. … For me it’s just because I had to figure it out, I had to pick it up. That was the moment where I knew I had some driving talent because I went out there, first season and won Rookie of the Year without ever racing anything else in my entire lap.”
Now Smithley is 52 starts into his Xfinity career. In his second season with JD Motorsports, Smithley has earned two top 10s, in February at Daytona and June at Iowa Speedway.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: After the first Iowa race, you snuck up behind your teammate Ross Chastain during his TV interview and you looked like it was your birthday. When was the last time you had that feeling after a race?
Smithley: I guess it would have to be Daytona, I’m trying to think. We’ve had good runs here and there this year. I would say honestly that was the first time this season since Daytona that we’ve had that. It’s such a good feeling. Again, with that race, I had one set of sticker tires the whole day to finish like that. Who knows what could have happened if we had a little bit more tires. For Ross to go in there and finished fourth and for me to go in there and finished 10th. Harrison (Rhodes) unfortunately had an issue on his car, but he was probably going to be racing with us. … Anytime that we can do that, it’s a David and Goliath story. We’re up against these multi-million dollar teams that spend millions and millions on just one car and we’ve got probably not even a million on all three cars. To do that is special for sure.
NBC Sports: Do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?
Smithley: That’s a good question (laughs). I would say to some I’ve absolutely made it. I still see guys I raced with when I was a kid who have way more experience and way more money and way more talent that aren’t currently racing anything right now. I think to a lot of guys I’ve raced with, that I’m friends with, absolutely. I think for me I’m happy where I’m at. It’s surreal just to be in this position at all. To be racing full-time and making a living at it. But at the same time, for me I set my goals extremely high, and I think with that you’ll never stop working. So for me, I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to quit until I make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and that’s my ultimate goal.
For me, if I have that goal, no matter how many wins I get, no matter how many championships I get, no matter what I do, I’m always going to be chasing that goal and it gives me something to work toward, no matter what I’m doing. I’m always going to be happy where I’m … I’m not (always) going to be happy where I’m at, but I’m always going to appreciate where I’m at and I’m always going to enjoy it. But at the same time I’m not going to stop working. If I fall short, I fall short and I feel like that goal is high enough to where if I do fall short, hopefully I’ll have accomplished a lot along the way.
NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Bristol Cup race, what would be your intro song?
Smithley: I’m maybe a nerd for this, but I don’t know if you watch Spongebob (Squarepants), but it’s called “Sweet Victory” and it’s when Spongebob plays at the Bubble Bowl.
NBC Sports: Why that?
Smithley: I think that’s such a cool song. I’m like a huge Spongebob fan. And I can see the pyrotechnics and could just envision what that would look like to people.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Smithley: A 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan. … I drove it in high school. Peach Tree City is notorious for golf carts and there’s like 90 miles of golf cart paths throughout the city. I didn’t get my license until I was 17 and a half and had been racing for a year and a half in Bandoleros. I didn’t feel like there was a need to drive because I had golf carts. When I was 15 I could drive my golf cart. We drove golf carts to school and to the store and everything like that. So it was pretty crazy. But my parents had a minivan they bought new in 2001 and they said, ‘Here, you can have the minivan’ and I was like ‘All right.’ At first I was like, it’s a car, that’s fine. Then it ended up working out because everyone wanted to ride with me cause I had plenty of room. So I was popular. To this day I still wish I had that minivan cause I love that car.
NBC Sports: If you have a free day, how do you spend it?
Smithley: I’m out so much and doing things that when I do have a free day I just want to stay in and do nothing. There’s two things I really like to do when I just want to get away from life. One is put my headphones in, listen to really loud EDM music and play “Counter-Strike” on my computer, it’s a first-person shooter game. I do that or iRacing. I’ll get on a road course. They just came out with Nürburgring, I’ll just get in a Legends car or something like that and just drive it on Nürburgring, just for fun. Or I will go downstairs, I have a piano. I used to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I took them for like years. I’ll go down to the piano and play music.
NBC Sports: What songs can you play?
Smithley: ‘Let it Be’ is my favorite. ‘Let it Be’ by The Beatles. I can play ‘Apologize,’ (by OneRepublic), ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ by Aerosmith. There’s a couple of others that aren’t coming to my mind. I enjoy playing.
NBC Sports: If you could have a conversation with Dale Jarrett, what would you ask him?
Smithley: Funny enough, in 2015 I got a call from a producer from NBCSN and Jeff Burton does those hot laps every week before the Cup races for pre-race. So he called me and said ‘Hey, are you going to be in town for the Charlotte race?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m planning on going.’ I wasn’t racing at that point. He said, ‘I wanted to see if you could do some laps for us.’ … He said ‘You’re going to be driving along Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett.’
I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m going to drive with them on-track?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be in Petty cars and you’re going to do this for a segment.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s incredible.’ So I got to be in the production meeting with all the NBC executives, Rick Allen, Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett and all the drivers. It was just incredible. … At that point I only had three truck races under my belt. So I’m sitting here with a hall of famer, a champion and a guy who won several Cup races. I’m here at this like, ‘Hey, I’m Garrett. I’ve really only run three races in the Truck series.’ It was pretty surreal. So I got to talk to Dale that day. I just went over and said ‘Hey, I hate to be a fan, but you’ve always been my favorite driver when I was a kid and it’s really, really cool to be driving with you.’ He said, ‘Hey, just never give up. Keep digging. You’ll get there.’ For him to say that, now I can’t give up because my hero just told me that I can’t.