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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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Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.

William Byron wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. —  William Byron won the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Byron claimed the top spot with a qualifying speed of 183.424 mph. At the age of 21, he’s the youngest Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter.

It’s Byron’s second career Cup pole, joining his pole in this year’s Daytona 500.

He beat out Aric Almirola (183.069 mph), Kyle Busch (182.933), Austin Dillon (182.766) and Kevin Harvick (182.741).

“This is awesome, a dream come true,” Byron told FS1. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte so I came to this race every year. It’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole next to Hendrick Motorsports across the street over there. … Can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”

Byron has qualified on the front row five time this year and four times in the last seven races.

The pole is the 12th for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600, which leads all teams.

Busch has qualified in the top three for the last three 600s.

Corey LaJoie‘s No. 32 Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection twice, resulting in the ejection of an engineer.

Click here for qualifying results.