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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

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

NBC Sports: Why yellow?

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

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

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

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

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

NBC Sports: What does JJ stand for?

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

NBC Sports: Who actually calls you Christopher?

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

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Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

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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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Austin Dillon’s car fails pre-race inspection, will start from rear

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Bristol, Tenn. — Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection three times Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dillon will start from the rear and his car chief, Greg Ebert, has been ejected from the event.

Dillon had qualified 18th.

Dillon will have to serve a 30-minute practice hold in two weeks at Darlington Raceway.

Kyle Larson seeks turnaround at ‘by far my favorite racetrack’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – With his team in a mini-slump in midsummer, Kyle Larson is back in his happy place, and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wouldn’t mind returning more often.

“I love racing here,” Larson said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I wish we could race here weekly. I think our sport would be in a good spot if we could.

“I didn’t watch a ton of NASCAR growing up, but I’d never miss a Bristol race. If you were to ask me what Bristol race stands out, I couldn’t tell you. I just loved watching Bristol. It was always a lot of fun. Ever since they added the progressive banking, it’s been a lot better, too, as far as style of racing goes. It’s by far my favorite NASCAR track.”

The love of Bristol grew only stronger Friday night as he won the Food City 300 and scored his first victory in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts at the 0.533-mile oval.

Larson will be trying for his first win in NASCAR’s premier series at the track – and his first in Cup this season – while starting from the pole position in tonight’s race.

A victory would be a welcome result for Larson’s team, which is virtually locked into the playoffs but has only two top 10s in six races since his memorable runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing seem to have gotten faster in recent weeks, Larson’s No. 42 Camaro seems to have tailed off slightly after easily being the best Chevy in the first half of the season.

“I don’t know where we might be off,” he said. “Nobody really honestly knows where other teams have gotten speed from, so we’re working on all areas, really, I’m pretty sure, to try and get faster. We have moments where we’re really fast, but I would say we’re just a little inconsistent from track to track.

“You look at last year, we were good everywhere. This year, we’re good at our good tracks. Not as good at the tracks that we have struggled at years prior.”

But what about starting and finishing 17th last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he won three consecutive races from 2016-17?

A loose wheel after his first pit stop mired Larson in traffic and out of sequence, and then contact on a restart hampered into using an older set of tires for the last run of the race.

“It just snowballed into a bad run where I felt like we were going to have a shot to run top 3 or 5, but it just doesn’t show for it, and other people look at it as we just ran bad all day,” he said. “If you look at lap times, we were running some of the fastest laps of the race, just buried in traffic. I feel like we’re not that bad. We just had a little bit of a bad luck that cost us finishes we deserved the last few weeks.”

The urgency to maximize his speed stems more from being well positioned in the playoffs than making the 16-driver field. Larson is one of three provisionally qualified who have no playoff points yet.

“That part is a little frustrating,” he said. “It makes you more nervous when it comes to the playoffs, but the good thing is there’s been three guys taking up all the playoff points, so the other ones don’t have a whole lot, either, but every point matters.

“You look at it as you need to win some stages and win a race, but I also view Bristol as being my best opportunity to get some playoff points. I feel like we can win both stages and win the race. Not easily but this is our best shot. That five to seven points would be huge.”

And after getting bumped from the lead by race winner Kyle Busch at Bristol in April, Larson has earned some leeway in playing rough – not that he plans to use it.

He prefers the “options” afforded by the 2007 addition of progressive banking (which was retrofitted in 2012 in a manner that often makes the top groove the fastest).

“If there was progressive banking 20 years ago, the racing would have been a lot better back then,” he said. “I’m not a fan of the bump and run. I’m just a fan of Bristol.

“I’d much rather see two to three wide racing at Bristol than single file. I think the racing is really good, and that’s why I love coming here to race.”

Staff picks for Bristol night race

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Here’s who NBC’s NASCAR writers think will triumph tonight under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:46 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Dustin Long

Ryan Blaney gets the win he should have had at this track in April.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. On Thursday, he told reporters he was convinced he could sweep both stages and win. On Friday, he took a big step toward convincing the rest of us.

Daniel McFadin

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins in his last good shot to get into the playoffs with a victory.

Dan Beaver

Really? I’m the only one going with Kyle Busch? I just hope everyone in my fantasy NASCAR league ignores him as well.

Trophy for Charlotte Roval race revealed

Dustin Long
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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The trophy for the Sept. 30 Cup race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was revealed Saturday prior to the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The trophy is inspired by Bank of America, which sponsors the 400-kilometer race.

It is designed to resemble the Bank of America building in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

The track also announced a Sammy Hagar concert the night before the race. The “Rock the ROVAL” concert will be held at 9 p.m. ET on pit road.

 

Photo: Daniel McFadin
(Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)