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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

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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Mechanical issue drops Martin Truex Jr. to final transfer spot entering Kansas

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Martin Truex Jr. knows Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway could have been worse because of a mechanical issue that made his car “evil to drive.”

The result is that Truex, one of the members of the Big 3 that has dominated the series this season, holds the final transfer spot entering next weekend’s cutoff race at Kansas Speedway.

MORE: Aric Almirola wins at Talladega 

MORE: Kurt Busch criticizes NASCAR 

With an issue in the rear gear, Truex said he fought the car most of the race.

“Couldn’t even go straight,” he said after finishing 23rd. “There was no chance of me getting up there and racing as much as I wanted to.

“I rode around all day broke, hanging on, miserable. I couldn’t even race, my car was so screwed up. It felt like the rear end housing was falling out of it.”

The struggles had him in a spot late in the race where he would have been outside the cutoff spot heading to Kansas.

Truex’s fortune changed when some playoff drivers, including Brad Keselowski, had to pit for fuel in overtime and gave up several spots.

Instead of being outside the cutoff,  Truex enters Kansas in the final transfer spot and has an 18-point lead on Keselowski and a 22-point lead on Ryan Blaney.

Truex won at Kansas last fall and finished second there in May.

“I think that’s a good place for us even if we had to win,” Truex said. “I am not saying we’re going to go there and win. But anytime we can go to any of those tracks, I feel like we have a shot. It’s racing. A lot can happen as we saw today. We’ll give it everything we got and bring a great car to Kansas. We’ll try to get the checkered flag.”

What drivers said after the Cup race at Talladega

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Aric Almirola — Winner: “I felt like I kept giving it away and I was so disappointed for all these guys behind me because they’re awesome. They’re the best. I’m with the best team in the garage and I felt like I kept letting them down not winning a race. Today, the Good Lord was shining on us and we went to Victory Lane. We did it, finally.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 2nd: “Man, that was about as easy of a Talladega race as I have ever experienced. What a day to be in a Ford! Every time I looked in my mirror it was a wave of blue ovals. What a day for SHR, too. That was all about cooperation. There’s no way you could overstate how good our cars were today. We finished second in both stages and the race, so that’s a pretty good day for us. We’ll go to Kansas and get a good run and make sure we are in the Round of 8 after next weekend.” 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We definitely had to fight hard today. We weren’t near as good as we normally are at the speedways, so that was a real bummer, but we fought hard and made a lot of adjustments to try and make our car faster. It seemed to work a little bit there and obviously fell on the lucky side of having to pit and having enough fuel, so everything worked out good for us today to get that good finish and back-to-back top 10s is a start.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 4th: “I thought we were the next best in line today. The Ford cars seemed to have a little more speed than us. We stayed disciplined and in line there. We chose the right line when the lines came. Got a great top-five finish today. We were almost the best in class there.”

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “Those Stewart-Haas cars drove great and they were really, really fast. They showed it in qualifying and they were so committed to each other and they did a great job. They probably would have finished 1-2-3-4 if they didn’t run out of gas, so they were definitely quick. We had a pretty good Shell/Pennzoil Ford, not the winning car, but definitely a top-five car, the best of the rest you could call it. We scored some stage points and then a solid top five, so I’m proud of that. I don’t know where that puts us in points, but I think it puts us in a decent spot to where we can go to Kansas and race hard, so not that we didn’t race hard today, but it was just gonna take a lot to beat the teamwork and the cars that they had today.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 6th: “I thought prior to the final restart I got myself in a good position on the outside there. It just seemed like every time the line went to move somebody made a move and it checked the lineup. I was just getting pinned out there. I thought my car handled good compared to the guys I was around. I thought that was our strength. And then the No. 88 (Alex Bowman) got turned, I saw him get turned and figured at some point he was going to come snapping back up the race track and I was like to say that was skill missing that, but it was pretty much luck that he didn’t hit me. The final restart was just trying to pick a lane. A couple of guys ran out of fuel coming to the green, so we got to move up a couple of rows and then it was just trying to pick the right lane coming to the checkered. For once we didn’t wreck at Talladega, so that is a good day.” 

Kyle Larson — Finished 11th: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend. We were able to salvage a decent finish, but the Fords are so fast here and can rack up a lot of stage points. Even when they have a bad day, they still gain points on us. It is what it is. We’ll just go to Kansas and try and win.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 14th: There was two missed calls by NASCAR at the end. Why did we have an extra yellow flag lap is beyond me. The track was ready to go. And at the end. Once we crossed the white flag, if there’s a wreck and an ambulance needs to be dispatched. I’ve been on the other side of that where I was racing coming back to win the race and they said ‘Well, we had to dispatch an ambulance.’ There was two cars dead in the water.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 15th: “This was a solid day for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 team. We didn’t make any mistakes on track. My spotter did a great job and kept me clean all day. Talladega has always been a strong track for me because I’m comfortable with this style of racing. This was the kind of day our team needed after a couple of tough weeks. We ran up front, earned a bonus point at the end of Stage 1 and showed once again that Germain Racing builds fast superspeedway cars. I wish we could’ve gotten a top 10, but those are the brakes sometimes at these tracks with how quickly drafts change and cars move around. I’m proud of my team’s effort today, and I’m looking forward to Kansas next weekend.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 15th: “To he honest, I was worried at the start of the race because the American Ethanol Camaro ZL1 was not handling very well. My crew chief, Justin Alexander, and the team worked hard to fine-tune our Chevy throughout the race and we were able to earn some Stage points at the end of Stage 2. We opted to hang back in Stage 3 in anticipation of ‘The Big One.’ We knew that if we could avoid that, we would have a solid shot at the end. It didn’t work out quite the way we hoped with a relatively calm race and not enough laps to get to the front at the end. You win some, you lose some.”

William Byron — Finished 20th: “It was good. I thought my goal was really to survive. We were fortunate to lead some laps when we got the track position, which was good. Just couldn’t get enough guys to work with me. Hopefully, next year will be different with the rookie stripes off, it should make a difference, but other than that I thought our day was good. Got the car better handling-wise, handling was pretty important and then from there we just were kind of trying to fight for track position. I was able to bring it home, which was good.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 23rd: “It didn’t really matter what we did to the car. It didn’t go away. We tried a lot of stuff. It was tough to drive. It couldn’t even go straight. I could run hard for two or three laps. As soon as the tires got some air pressure, I was just hanging on. The longer the runs were, the worse it got. There was no chance of me just getting up there and racing. I wanted to. Luckily, we were able to get some tires there in the end. I could go for about three laps. I felt good going to the green-white checkered. They wrecked in front of us and we barely made it through. As soon as we got through there, I was able to salvage something.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 25th: “Before the final stage, we did a fuel-only pit stop to give us options later in the race. We were in lucky dog position for the final 20 laps and eventually caught a break to put us on the lead lap with two laps remaining. However, in overtime I was caught in a wreck and the car was heavily damaged. I know we were better than where we finished, P25. Sometimes the dominoes just don’t fall your way. We’ll be ready for Kansas next week and hopefully string together some solid runs to close out the year.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 26th: “We tried everything today and struggled to get up front.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 27th: “We ran out of gas from what I could tell, so we’ll go through and look at it and see.” 

Kevin Harvick — Finished 28th: “I’m just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. Mine sputtered there on the fuel pressure and it dropped down in the red and they did the right thing of coming in and pitting and not taking a chance. You just need to put yourself in a position to where you’re good for next week and just glad that one of our cars won and happy for Aric.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 31st: “Yeah, I mean it is what it is. We were far enough back in the pack where if it does happen you are probably going to be in it. Yeah, it happens.”

Late fuel stop adds to ‘frustrating three weeks’ for Brad Keselowski’s team

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — All that positive momentum Brad Keselowski’s team had entering the playoffs is long gone after another frustrating finish that has his title hopes in jeopardy.

Keselowski pitted for fuel in overtime and finished 27th Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. He is 18 points out of the final transfer spot entering next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.

“Ever since Richmond, we haven’t done much, made bad decisions and we didn’t have speed this weekend, and last weekend was bad,” crew chief Paul Wolfe told NBC Sports. “We wrecked two cars at the Roval. It’s been a frustrating three weeks and now we’re sitting I don’t know how many points out … We’ll go to Kansas and do what we try to do every week and that’s win and see what happens.”

It’s a marked change for the team, which won the Southern 500 and at Indianapolis to end the regular season and won the playoff opener at Las Vegas.

At Richmond, Keselowski finished ninth, hindered by a slow pit stop in the first half of the race. At the Charlotte Roval, he was fastest in practice but crashed in the final session and had to go to a backup. He crashed while leading late in the race and placed 31st. Last week at Dover, Keselowski finished 14th after he was hit by Aric Almirola in the final laps and his car was damaged.

“We made a bad call not to pit last week there at the end and then we got run over,” Wolfe said. “So that’s not good.”

Sunday, Keselowski had a loose wheel that forced him to stop under green and fall a lap down. He recovered to lead 21 laps but Stewart-Haas Racing’s cars were clearly better.

Why?

Sounds like they’ve got some really good engineering,” Keselowski said.

The team made some changes this weekend to the car but couldn’t counter the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“We went for handling today, thought that’s what we needed and I don’t know, I didn’t really see it pay off for us,” Wolfe said. “There were cars out there driving a lot worse than we were but we weren’t able to capitalize on it. Disappointed in that.”

Keselowski was running ninth when the race went to overtime and then pitted for fuel while most of the field stayed out.

“We just got a little bit of air in there and I think he panicked and came to pit road and likely should have just rolled on and we would have probably run out down the back (straightaway) or something but had enough speed to carry it around and maybe finish a few spots higher,” Wolfe told NBC Sports.

“When you get down to the end like that and you got a lap-and-a-half of fuel, we’re talking about half a gallon of fuel, you’ve got to be really aggressive keeping that pick up full and sometimes you‘ll get a little sputter there and got to let it recover and go on. It’s just been a frustrating three weeks.”

Results, stats for the Cup race at Talladega

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Aric Almirola passed a fuel-starved Kurt Busch in Turn 4 on the final lap of  the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway to win his first race of the season and advance to the third round of the playoffs.

Teammate Clint Bowyer followed him across the line.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

Stewart-Haas Racing started first through fourth and ran that way for most of the race. With less than 10 laps remaining, they separated from the field – building an advantage of more than 20-car-lengths with five to go.

That advantage was erased with three laps remaining when Alex Bowman spun and brought out the caution.

Kurt Busch fell to 14th on the final lap. Teammate Kevin Harvick pitted as the field was about to take the green flag. He finished 28th.

Click here for complete results