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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.

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Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

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Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

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The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
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NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

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NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”

Truck starting lineup at Michigan

Truck starting lineup at Michigan
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Chandler Smith will be on the pole after a random draw set the Truck starting lineup for Friday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Brett Moffitt will join Smith on the front row of the Truck starting lineup. Rookie Christian Eckes will start third and be followed by Matt Crafton, who won at Kansas in the most recent Truck race, and Austin Hill.

Click here for Truck starting lineup

Here is how the lineup was set:

  • Positions 1 -10: The first 10 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 10th using a random draw.
  • Positions 11 – 21: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 11- 21 using a random draw.
  • positions 22 – 32: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 22nd – 32nd  using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 33rd – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

NASCAR Truck Series at Michigan 

Race Time: 6 p.m. ET Friday

Track: Michigan International Speedway: Brooklyn, Michigan (2-mile speedway)

Length: 100 laps (200 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 20. Stage 2 ends Lap 40.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: Saturday at Michigan (156 laps, 312 miles) 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Road America (45 laps, 182.16 miles) noon ET on NBCSN