Ty Majeski

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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Casey Mears

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In February, Casey Mears did what he had done for most of the last 14 years. He traveled to Daytona to participate in media day for NASCAR’s Speedweeks.

Then he left.

For the first time since 2003, Mears had no part in NASCAR’s on-track festivities building up to and including the Daytona 500. The “odd” circumstances were a result of Mears’ seven-year relationship with Germain Racing ending at the end of 2016.

The winner of the 2007 Coke 600 and a veteran of 488 Cup starts waited until the March 25 Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway for his first track action of 2017. Mears has since competed in 12 races for Biagi DenBeste Racing in the No. 98 Ford and will end the year with the races at Phoenix and Miami.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The schedule has provided him his most free time since his days driving Indy Lights.

“It was definitely tough at the beginning of the year to watch the races and not being a part of them,” Mears told NBC Sports. “Just out of, what do I want to say, repetitiveness. Just so many years of going every single weekend and then all of a sudden not going was definitely an adjustment for sure. The flip side of that is that it’s been a good thing. I’ve had a lot of time. … Even though I have a passion for racing and would still get right back in it at a full season opportunity again if the opportunity came around. But knowing that it hasn’t for this year, it’s been fun to take advantage of the time I do have.

“I’ve gotten to make a lot of my kid’s games and tournaments. My kids are involved in gymnastics and soccer and basketball and all those kind of things. Actually being home for some weekends and getting to watch some of their games and be a part of that stuff has been really enjoyable. But it’s been adjustment for sure.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: How was your Global Rally Cross experience last weekend? Was that the first time you’ve done that?

Mears: I really enjoyed that. … When the series was first trying to get rolling, they did some events at Loudon and at Charlotte, kind of on the front stretch and then in the infield during our race weekends when we were racing Cup. I was exposed to it a little bit then. Years ago I entered the Race of Champions over in Spain (in 2003). I got to drive a Peugeot for a couple of laps, which is a world rally car there. … I’ve been looking at that series talking to those guys about possibly getting involved, and I just wanted to go out to California last week. It was their last race of the year. … It seems like the series really has some legs and starting to take off. … It seems like there’s a lot of IndyCar car guys, open-wheel guys that are involved that series right now. Not just drivers, but team owners. Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta. Those guys are all involved. And when I look around at a lot of the teams, they’re all guys I worked with in the past on my Indy Lights teams and IndyCar programs I drove for. … It was kind of a big reunion in a lot of ways of catching up with people I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?

Mears: The very first NASCAR race, that was sanctioned by NASCAR, would have to be when my dad (Roger Mears) did the Truck Series. The very first year that Truck Series started my dad was a part of that. He ran a handful of races (four points races). I want to say the very first (exhibition) race was at Mesa Marin in Bakersfield, California, where I grew up. I was at the very first ever Truck race at Mesa Marin.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about that?

Mears: My dad was involved so a lot of my memories revolve around the team and the program that he was trying to put together. I remember helping him build the truck. I remember as a younger guy building the floorboards for the truck and the foot rests and a lot of stuff in the interior. Just because from a driver standpoint that was the stuff I was most familiar with at the time and I was pretty young. … I had to be probably 12, 13 years old.

NBC Sports: How did you go from open-wheel racing to stock cars? What prompted it?

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Mears: What really drove it was the state of open-wheel racing at the time. At that moment, open-wheel racing was in a flux at best. I had done the Indy Lights thing, had won races and finished (second) one year in the championship and (third) the following year in the championship and it was really time for me to move on and go to that next level. I started dabbling in some IndyCar races. I did a race for Bobby Rahal and filled in for Alex Zanardi when he had a big accident in Germany. He lost his legs there. I ended up filling in for him for the remainder of the season. … I was sitting there trying to decide which was going to be the right way to go. I didn’t know if CART was going to be the future in IndyCar or if it was going to be IRL. Nobody really knew it. Randomly, I had a guy call me that was involved in a program in North Carolina, which was a Busch Series team at the time. It was Welliver-Jesel Racing. Welliver had been involved in the sport for quite awhile. Wayne Jesel was just getting involved and wanted to do an engine program and have a race team. A silent partner who was involved in the IndyCar side of things at that point said, ‘Hey, what are you doing next year? Would you like to come back and start stock car racing?’ The more I thought about it, my dad already moved back in 2000 and was a shop foreman for Chip Ganassi and his stock car program. He kept telling me how much was going on back east and how many teams there were and all the racing that was happening. ‘You got to get back here and check it out.’ All those things combined made me make a decision to go ahead and try it.

NBC Sports: What about stock car racing appealed to you that other forms of racing you’d been in couldn’t provide?

Mears: That’s a good question. Because I loved open-wheel racing and I still do. The cars are very fun to drive, I definitely have a passion for it based on my family’s history and the people that I knew. The stock car thing was really foreign to me. … The one thing I learned that I enjoyed about stock car racing that I didn’t know that I was going to like was the short tracks. It took me awhile to get the hang of them because they were probably the thing that was most different from anything I’d ever done before. Probably my third year in stock car racing the one thing I really enjoyed about it was how diverse all the tracks were.

NBC Sports: Where is your Coke 600 trophy? Where does it sit now?

Mears: Right now it’s in my office in my house.

NBC Sports: How often do you stop and look at that?

Mears: You know you get used to it being there and not often. I think that’s what trophies are kind of cool for, right? You get used to having them and over time and it’s another piece of equipment in your house. But what’s cool about having a couple of them on display is that every now and then somebody sees it and wants to ask about it. It helps you relive those cool moments from your life. Every now and then a friend comes over or somebody new comes to the house and asks about em’. It’s sitting right next to the (2006) 24 Hours of Daytona win (trophy) and a win I had in Houston in Indy Lights. It’s just cool to have. It was a very special moment in my life. I think in my long career in NASCAR I obviously didn’t accumulate a lot of wins. I have the one for winning in Charlotte, so it’s definitely a special moment.

NBC Sports: What’s your dream car?

Mears: I lived my dream for a little while. I can tell you that. I had a sand car, I know it’s not a vehicle you drive on a road. I had a sand car that had about 1,300 horsepower. Out of anything I’ve driven outside of motorsports, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever driven. Horsepower-wise, handling, the whole scene of going out to the sand dunes and ripping around the sand dunes and a camp fire at night. That whole thing. That’s probably the most fun car I’ve ever had.

NBC Sports: If you could have a one-on-one matchup with any driver past or present on any track in any form of car, what would the arrangement be?

Mears: I would love to go head-to-head with my dad in an off-road event. Like the stadium trucks we used to race in the Mickey Thompson off-road stuff. About the time I was old enough to start moving up into the Truck Series was about the time the Mickey Thompson series kind of fell apart and I ended up going open-wheel racing. My brother and my dad raced against each other for years doing that stuff. He’s one of the guys I respect the most in the sport and it would just be a blast. It would probably never happen at this point in our careers, in our lives. But that’s something I would love to do.

NBC Sports: With Halloween coming up, what’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?

Mears: Last year or the year before my wife (Trisha) and I dressed up. I dressed up as Clark Griswold and she dressed up as Christie Brinkley from the Vacation movie. That was pretty fun.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

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

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

Christopher Bell

Jeff Green

Xfinity Spotlight: How far will playoff drivers go to advance?

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No mother or grandmother is safe.

That’s the impression left by more than one of the 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff drivers when asked a simple question.

What are you willing to do to advance to the Round of 8?

Thanks to wins by non-playoff divers Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney, none of the 12 drivers have officially advanced to next round.

Here’s what each driver had to say before the start of the playoffs.

Justin Allgaier, JR Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet (+54 points above first driver outside transfer spot)

“You know having teammates involved in this, you know you look at where you stand. I mean I have a lot of respect for my teammates, and you know that makes it very challenging when you get down to that final spot. If you’re battling it out with a teammate, what’s the limit? How far do you go? And I think that’s the area of concern for everybody. You know, none of us want to be the villain in this. None of us want to be the guy that goes out and crashes everybody to try and make it. I know that we all get along. That’s the one thing that’s pretty cool. Everybody in the top 12 gets along really well at this point. We’d love to keep it that way when this playoffs is over.

William Byron, JR Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet (+51)

“I think whatever you feel like is the right thing to do. We are going to do whatever it takes as far as our performance, as far as what we can do in our control and then when it comes to racing around guys I feel like we are doing our job if we are ahead of those guys already. So, if we are not, then there is something we are not doing that isn’t going right. So, we are going to approach it the same way we have and compete at a really high level and give 110 percent and if that means that we need to win we are going to go out there and win.”

Elliott Sadler (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet (+41)

“You’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to try and get all the points that you can. Now with the stage racing, (that) gives you two more opportunities per race to get more points under your belt than maybe you really could in years past. So there’s things you’ve got to pay attention to, there’s a lot of things going on these days during these races that if you don’t understand what you’re doing, don’t ( look) ahead, some other teams could take advantage of them. I think that is what our team has done the best this year is getting those stage points. So that’s something that’ll be a main focus of ours as we try to head through these playoffs.

Cole Custer, Stewart Haas Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet (+40)

“You don’t know until you are in that situation because every situation is different, but you definitely got to be pretty aggressive when it comes down to it. If you are going to have to advance to another round, there is not much that I don’t think a lot of us wouldn’t do.”

Daniel Hemric, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet (+37)

“How about whatever it takes. The whole season is on the line. These guys bust their tails for it day in and day out at the shop. My entire career has been built for that moment so we find ourselves on the cut line I will do whatever it takes to prevail not only for me but for success of myself moving forward, for my career, for my team.”

Brennan Poole, Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 Chevrolet (+29)

“I just kinda hang it out there, you know. Anytime I’m in a position to be able to get the lead or win a race you know you just put everything on the line, doesn’t really matter, you just do what it takes to get it done regardless, worry about it later.”

Matt Tifft (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images) 

Matt Tifft, Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota (+14)

“I am willing to wreck my grandma in a (cutoff) race. I mean you got to do what you got to do. But at the same time obviously, (the) second round cut race is going to be maybe a bigger move than a first round cut race would be. … But if it’s something where you’re kind of close, you don’t want to go and make somebody mad that’s going to come back to haunt you (in the second round), but you know, you got to, sometimes you got to take a chance, if that’s what we have to do we’ll do it.”

Ryan Reed, Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 Ford (+2)

“Really anything, you know if it’s two (laps) to go and the guy in front of you is the difference between advancing and not advancing, you’ll move him, you’ll wreck him. I think you saw Ryan Newman move Kyle Larson (Phoenix, 2014), that was a really good example of … Ryan Newman doesn’t do that, he doesn’t make that pass, he doesn’t do that move if it wasn’t for the playoffs and for that situation and that holds truth. I think almost every single driver, they will do whatever it takes to get to the next round.

Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 62 Chevrolet (-2 from final transfer spot)

“Everyone … wants to hear us say we would wreck our mother for a win and a guy goes out and wrecks his mother for a win and people turn on him. Who was it in the (Camping World Truck Series) race? Austin Cindric did that. Everyone loves us to say those words and that when we do they are like, ‘oh that is a bad guy.’ Here’s deal, I will race you hard. If it means I have to win to get in and I can get to your rear bumper, I am not going to wreck you but I am definitely going to take a shot at you to move you. That is just what you have to do. If you are in that position and it is a must-win, you will do what you need to do to get that must-win.”

Michael Annett, JR Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet (-7)

“You don’t want to wreck a teammate but if you’ve got to move them, I think any one of them would sit here and say the same thing; they’re going to do it because you’ve got to drive that car down pit road and meet your guys and if they think you left anything out there, then I don’t think I’ll be able to look them in the eye. So that’s the mentality you know that I don’t think you’ll see necessarily come out, you know unless you’re racing for a win throughout the year. But when you get to the playoffs if it means moving on to the next round or not, you know that one spot, it’s going to feel like a win at least that day.”

Blake Koch. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Blake Koch, Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet (-12)

“It is a tough question to really have a solid answer for, but I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to pass the guy in front of me, and whether that’s a cutoff spot or not, I feel like every point matters so much in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who it is, whether they have a red spoiler (for playoff drivers) or not, you need to get around that car because that one point could be the point that gets you to the next round of the playoffs.”

Jeremy Clements, Jeremy Clements Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet (-20)

“I’m willin’ to do anything it takes. If we gotta move a guy to get that spot and they say we need that extra spot, that extra point, I’m gonna have to do it. I mean this is – we don’t know how many times we’ll get this opportunity (to be in the playoffs). So we’re gonna do all it takes to make it to the next round and … and if I gotta move my Mom outta the way I’ll do it.”

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

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

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

Christopher Bell

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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Christopher Bell

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In Norman, Oklahoma, the Sooners are king.

Growing up in the city 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City, the Sooners were a regular part of Christopher Bell‘s life, especially since his father, David, was a high school basketball coach when he was a little.

“As a kid I guess that’s what I dreamed of doing, was playing football and basketball,” Christopher Bell told NBC Sports. “Obviously that got derailed at a very young age once I got introduced to racing.”

Bell was 4 or 5 years old when he was invited by the family of one of his father’s players to watch him compete in a micro-sprint car race.

Christopher Bell drives his No. 4 Toyota at Michigan International Speedway in August. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was hooked ever since,” Bell said. “From then on, I started racing when I was 6. Haven’t missed a weekend since.”

The most recent race weekend saw Bell, 22, win his seventh Camping World Truck Series race and his fifth of the year. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver leads the playoff standings after one race. It’s been almost a year since he made it to the championship race, the only driver out of four born after 1980.

This year has seen Bell get his feet wet in the Xfinity Series, making four starts for Joe Gibbs Racing. He’ll also compete in the final four races of the year.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Do you have a favorite basketball team?

Bell: I used to love the Hornets. Whenever the Hornets, they were in New Orleans and then I think Hurricane Katrina got them. Then they moved to Oklahoma City (temporarily). So whenever the Hornets were in Oklahoma City (in 2005-06), I don’t think I ever missed a game. I loved the Hornets, so that was really cool. I have a lot of memories of going to Hornets games with my father as a kid.

NBC Sports: What’s the most fun race you’ve ever been part of?

Bell: Homestead last year was a ton of fun. I don’t know if that’s the most fun I’ve ever had. But the last 20 laps of the truck race at Homestead last year was really, really intense. Homestead races really well. There’s a bunch of different grooves there. Me, Matt Crafton and Timothy Peters were all racing for second place in the championship and it was a heck of a race and that was a ton of fun.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup Bristol night race, what would you choose as your intro song?

Bell: “Hall of Fame” by The Script. … As a race car driver, your dream is to be the greatest. … I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day.

NBC Sports: Which phone app do you use the most that’s not social media related?

Bell: I don’t ever really use my phone that much. I use “Sleep Man” a lot, which is a fan that I can use in hotels because I sleep with a fan on. That would be my No. 1. … Basically it just makes noise like a fan would. Because I always sleep with fans, but in hotels you don’t have a fan.

NBC Sports: In your career, what’s the best advice or criticism you’ve received?
Bell: Recently, it would have to be from Kyle Busch. Kyle Busch’s best piece of advice he gave me was ‘to let it happen.’ If it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Don’t try and force it. So that sank in really hard because Kyle Busch has won so many races and he said ‘if you try too hard, it’s not going to happen. You can’t force it to happen. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’ That’s really sunk in.

NBC Sports: How did you meet Kyle Busch?

Bell: We were actually going to a Snowball Derby test (in 2014) and he went with us.

Christopher Bell talks with Kyle Busch at Martinsville Speedway in 2016. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What were your initial impression of him?

Bell: I was shocked how he was just another, I don’t know. We flew on a plane from Concord, (North Carolina), to Pensacola, (Florida). I didn’t even know he was on the plane with us`and then all of a sudden we get off the plane and I end up riding in the car with him. We get to the race track and he was just in a T-shirt laying on the ground, working on his late model harder than any of his employees. It was cool to see how involved he was and how he was working on the car. He was on the radio asking what the car needed, then he was the one making changes to the car. I was blown away by how hands-on he was about the whole thing.

NBC Sports: You’ve got four more Xfinity races at the end of the year. If you could pick a track to race in Xfinity at, what would it be?

Bell: Bristol. Bristol is badass. The way the banking is, the short track. It’s a short track that races with speed like a mile-and-a-half. To me that’s just a recipe for awesomeness, man. It’s just one of the coolest races ever, because of all the stands wrapped around the race track. You’re basically racing in a coliseum. It’s one of my favorite tracks we go to.

NBC Sports: What’s been your highest high and the lowest low of our career?

Bell: The highest high was definitely winning the Chili Bowl. That was my dream race … that’s kind of what racing means to me is the Chili Bowl. So to win it was something that was incredible. My lowest low was probably wrecking last year at (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) while qualifying. I wrecked a lot of trucks last year and then I went to Canada. Me and my crew chief (Jerry Baxter) sat down and we realized we can’t wreck. We had a big conversation about not wrecking and then I went out and wrecked in qualifying. So that hurt really bad. That stung.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

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

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

and on Facebook

NASCAR Spotlight: Q&A with Austin Cindric

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Eleven days ago you may not have known who Austin Cindric was.

Then came the eventful last lap of the Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

After starting the final stage in 16th, Cindric was chasing down Kaz Grala in hopes of passing him and earning his first NASCAR win.

If you were watching, you now know Cindric’s name. You also know the 19-year-old Brad Keselowski Racing driver is willing to give the bump-and-run to Grala, an old friend, to get into the Truck Series playoffs.

“If that didn’t mean a playoff spot for me than it wouldn’t have happened,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I’ll be frank about that and I’ll be honest it. It’s just one of those things that was going to have to happen for us to move forward. We needed the win and he wanted one.

“Need surpasses want.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: What was your biggest career achievement before your Truck win?

Cindric: It’s hard to say. I think my win in ARCA last year at Kentucky was big for me because that was my first stock car win at an oval after several tries and being really close. That was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to prove that I’d be able to do it a level and on that kind of stage. But to get it done in the Truck Series is a huge thing. It’s a national series in NASCAR. It’s a huge honor to be able to do it for the team.

NBC Sports: What was Brad Keselowski’s advice on how to handle the situation with Kaz?

Cindric: It was kind of funny talking back and forth because the first thing he told me was the best policy is honesty. I kind of laughed because I may have been too honest in my post-race interview. I think that’s what may have upset a few people, just because it may have not come across the right way about how the finish came off. I’ve got to be honest. It’s one of the qualities, it may be positive, it may be negative for me, but I’m not going to execute a move like that and not own up to it, I think that’s not in my nature and it’s only doing myself a disservice doing it the other way.

NBc Sports: When did you find out Brad Keselowski Racing would be shutting down?

Cindric: The only reason I heard about it before everyone else is because I had to stay the week in Bristol … which was the same week they announced it. Jeremy Thompson, our team’s manager, approached me after the race when we were in tech and told me what Brad was going to do at the shop the next morning and explain it to everybody. Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise for me. Obviously, it was tough not being able to be at the shop for that because I wanted to be with everybody. I wanted to take part in something like that. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to. It definitely means more to be able to bring something back this weekend to kind of get everyone excited for the last eight races.

NBC Sports: What’s your earliest memory related to auto racing?

Cindric: I guess going to the Indy 500 as a kid. When I grew up around racing it was mostly IndyCar racing. My dad (Team Penkse president Tim Cindric) did all of the strategy, managed the IndyCar team till both teams merged in North Carolina. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I got much of an introduction to NASCAR and that was at 7 or 8 years old. I was able to watch as many IndyCar races as I could as a kid and travel around in the summer and be able to go to those cool places and meet all the drivers and get their autographs and be a race fan. That’s what I was when I was little. I had all the Hot Wheels, I had all the diecast cars.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Cindric: I have never actually owned my own car. They’ve all actually been Ford vehicles. When I really started racing sports cars, I started with Ford and their factory Mustang program and the same gear box that was in a race car was in their street car. So I got my own Mustang to drive around and get used to the box because it was going to help me on the race track. Now obviously we’re the only truck team that runs Ford, so we get a lot of support from them. Ford’s been good enough to me to be able drive around town. But I’ve actually never owned my own car.

NBC Sports: What’s your favorite phone app to use that’s not social media?

Cindric: Shazam. I’m a huge music guy and Shazam, it’s the worst when you have the radio stations that never show what the (song) is and you just pull out your phone and boom, two seconds. You get the name of the song, screen shot it and go download it. I’m a Shazam guy.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup night race at Bristol, what would you choose as your introduction song?

Cindric: I’d like one of the Star Wars theme songs. Like when the Emperor walks out of the galactic shuttle.

NBC Sports: The Imperial March?

Cindric: Imperial March, there you go.

NBC Sports: If you were Star Wars character, who would you be?

Cindric: I’d be like a mix of Mace Windu and Obi-Wan Kenobi. … You can’t beat Samuel L. Jackson. And he has a purple lightsaber. Which is always cool because nobody else did. And Obi-Wan because he’s always the positive character, he does what’s right and does what’s necessary and he’s pretty level-headed. I think it’s hard not to like Obi-Wan.

NBC Sports: If you could race against any driver past or present, what track would you race at and what kind of car would it be in?

Cindric: I would race Rick Mears in, I’m not sure. I would say in Group C, which was basically the big prototype series in the 80s, a Group C car. And we would be at Mid-Ohio.

NBC Sports: Why Rick Mears?

Cindric: He’s someone a lot of people have respect for and someone I’ve grown up idolizing. I think he’s obviously a damn good race car driver. To be able to be on the race track with him at the same time and to be wheel-to-wheel with someone like that would be pretty neat.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

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

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

and on Facebook

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

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

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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