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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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Martin Truex Jr. on Cole Pearn’s departure, what he seeks in next crew chief

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. got a phone call from Cole Pearn on Sunday. Quickly, Truex had a very bad feeling about it.

“When he started talking it was in the back of my mind that, ‘This is not good. I feel like something big is about to come,'” Truex recalled. “Sure enough, it was surprising.”

Pearn had called to tell Truex what everyone else would learn the next day: after five years together, he was resigning as his crew chief and leaving NASCAR.

Truex discussed the end of Pearn’s tenure and what he wants from his next crew chief during a break from giving out Christmas toys to patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“Thought I could get a couple more years out of him, to be honest,” Truex said before admitting he completely understood Pearn’s reasons for getting out of NASCAR seemingly at the top of his game: a long season that keeps him from seeing his family.

“I understand the grind, I understand just how hard he has to work to produce a level of competition that he does,” Truex said. “I’ve seen it first hand, his hours and what’s he’s willing to do. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the garage willing to put as much work into racing as he did.”

He continued: “It’s time for him to move into doing something else. His kids are growing up too fast and he doesn’t get to see them that much. It was big decision for him and I know … he feels somewhat like he let all us down. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family, we all understand and all our guys will understand, we’ll go on and try to the best with someone else filling his role.'”

When it comes to figuring who will take over as crew chief on the No. 19 Toyota, Truex said, “We’ve got a few guys in mind. I feel like we’re narrowing it down. We should know something in the next couple of days for sure.”

Whoever takes over will follow in the wake of a crew chief who worked with Truex to produce 24 wins in five seasons, four appearances in the Championship 4 and the 2017 Cup title.

How did half a decade of success with Pearn change what Truex wants from a crew chief?

“Honestly, that’s a good question,” Truex said. “Obviously, I need to find somebody that has his demeanor, a guy that approaches racing the way he does, because it’s kind of what works for me. I feel like we approach racing the same way, Cole and I did. Our attitudes and just the way we thought about things was so similar. We could almost finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s so weird, we’re so different people outside of racing. In racing, that’s just the way we grew up. Our dads racing and racing go-karts and moving up through the ranks ourselves. We just did things a lot the same and we had similar beliefs in the way we did things. Just kind of the same thought process.”

Truex believes he and Pearn “approached a lot of things together more so than me being a rookie and him being a veteran like it was when I first started.

“No question, he was really good at getting the most out of me and I’ll need somebody to do that,” Truex said. “I’m not the most outspoken guy and so I need sometimes somebody to pull that information out of me, especially when it comes to the cars and building the cars. When they’re not good enough, how do you make them better? He was really good at that. I feel good about the guys we’re talking to and we’ve got a few options there and hopefully it’ll work out.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports announces 2020 driver, crew chief lineup

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced its driver-crew chief roster for the 2020 Gander Outdoors Truck Series season on Wednesday. It includes the addition of veteran Danny Stockman.

Stockman will be in charge of the No. 51 Toyota, which will be driven by Kyle Busch, Chandler Smith and more drivers to be announced at a later date.

Stockman was a long-time crew chief at Richard Childress Racing, most recently working with Austin Dillon in the Cup Series this season. He was Dillon’s crew chief when he won his titles in the Truck Series (2011) and Xfinity Series (2013).

Ryan “Rudy” Fugle will be paired with Christian Eckes on the No. 18 Toyota. Fugle worked on the No. 51 this year as it won six races, including all of Busch’s five wins and Greg Biffle‘s victory. Fugle has led KBM teams to five owner titles (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019) and two driver titles (2015 and 2017).

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Raphael Lessard‘s rookie season in the No. 4 Toyota. Hillman has two Truck Series titles, including Toyota’s first in 2006 with Todd Bodine.

 

DGR-Crosley switches from Toyota to Ford beginning in 2020

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Ford Performance is strengthening its driver development program by joining forces with DGR-Crosley, which announced its move from Toyota to Ford Wednesday.

The multi-year agreement will see team co-owner David Gilliland, a former Cup Series driver, lead the team’s driver development program as it field entries in late models, the ARCA Menards Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

“We’re very excited to have DGR-Crosley come to Ford as part of our long-term efforts to develop drivers for NASCAR,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “We have just scratched the surface of what is possible in developing the next generation of Ford drivers with people like Chase Briscoe, and we believe a coordinated effort with a team like DGR-Crosley will help move that process forward successfully.

“David Gilliland was a trusted and valued Ford driver in NASCAR for many years, and we look forward to renewing that relationship with him in this new effort.”

Said Gilliland: “I’m super excited about the partnership with Ford and how things are lining up for 2020. I spent a lot of time racing Fords throughout my career, and it’s really special to now be able to bring them into our race shop. A lot of time and consideration was spent on this decision, and internally we know that this is the move that we needed to make in order to advance our program to the top level. We have a great group of hard-working, talented people at DGR-Crosley, and with Ford coming on board, our future is really bright. We’re excited for all the things ahead.”

DGR-Crosley will announce its driver lineup at a later date.

The team first entered the Truck Series in 2018. Tyler Ankrum won its first race this year at Kentucky Speedway, qualifying for the playoffs in the process.

It fielded a team record five entries in the playoff race at ISM Raceway.

Brennan Poole to compete full-time for Premium Motorsports in Cup Series

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Former Xfinity Series driver Brennan Poole will compete full-time in the Cup Series in 2020 with Premium Motorsports, Poole announced Wednesday on social media.

Poole, 28, will drive the No. 15 Chevrolet and would make his Cup debut in the Daytona 500.

He joins a rookie class that includes Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer.

“I’ve been working towards this moment since I was 5 and feel blessed to have the caliber of people surrounding me that I have in this next chapter of my racing career,” Poole said in a press release. “I look forward to the opportunity to showcase our sponsor partners, both new and existing, who are supporting me at the highest level of NASCAR competition.”

Poole takes over the car that was driven by Ross Chastain in a majority of his Cup starts in 2019.

A native of The Woodlands, Texas, Poole drove for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series from 2016-17. His best finish was second in the 2017 race at Kentucky Speedway.

He made 13 starts in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2019, driving for On Point Motorsports. His best result was second in the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m very happy to welcome Brennan and his group to the Premium Motorsports family,” team owner Jay Robinson said in the press release. “Brennan is a very talented and dedicated young man, I believe he has a very bright future in the NASCAR Cup Series.”