2007 Ride: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet
2007 Primary Sponsor: Interstate Batteries
2007 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2007 Crew Chief: Steve Addington
Stats: 36 races, zero wins, one top five, three top 10s, one pole, 21st in points.
High Point: Yeley’s spirits in an otherwise lackluster year had to soar after a second-place run at the Coca-Cola 600 this May. That bridesmaid’s finish in 54 Nextel Cup races driving for the respected Joe Gibbs Racing organization was Yeley’s career best to date, coming days after an ultimatum by Team President JD Gibbs for the sophomore to step up his performance behind the wheel. Though aided greatly by a successful fuel-strategy call by the No. 18 team, Yeley was able to nurse the car home to the checkered flag after running well for all 600 miles. Just three weeks later, he won his first pole position at Michigan, punctuating his ability to compete in stock car’s most prestigious series.
Low Point: In early August, the 2003 USAC Triple Crown champion learned that his apprenticeship with JGR would come to an end. When the smoke cleared on the most publicized driver move in NASCAR history, the mega-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. replaced Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports, leaving the younger Busch, flush with talent, to be signed by the Gibbs camp. As a result, there was “no room at the inn” for Yeley at JGR, leaving the Phoenix, Ariz. native struggling to no finish better than 10th the rest of the season.
Summary: 2007 turned out to be quite the emotional roller coaster for the 30-year-old former open-wheel standout. Though JJ did improve on his 29th-place points finish in 2006, it apparently was not enough to convince Gibbs management that he was a better long-term prospect than Busch. However, Yeley did show steady improvement during his sophomore season, and that alone is cause for optimism that as he gains more seat time, he will continue to develop into a frontrunner if given the right equipment. Yeley’s maturity was showcased by a downgrade in wrecks this season – he had four DNFs for crashes compared to six in ’06 – as well as an ability to nurse an ill-handling car to top-15 and top-20 finishes on a more consistent basis.
2008 Outlook: After discussions with several team owners, Yeley signed with Hall of Fame Racing for next season, replacing Tony Raines to drive the No. 96 DLP HDTV Toyota. The move was a bit of a surprise, as HoF is partnered with JGR, leasing their race equipment directly from JJ’s former employer. However, Yeley has shown an exceptional amount of enthusiasm for the opportunity, in part due to the familiarity of new majority owners – and fellow desert inhabitors – Tom Garfinkel and Jeff Moorad from baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.
But although the Gibbs connection remains indirectly intact, it is still safe to predict a “rocky” 2008 season for Yeley and the No. 96 organization. The single-car operation is in transition from that change in majority ownership from last September; additionally, the team will be adversely affected by the inevitable learning curve with the new Toyota power plants they will begin campaigning in 2008.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: C+
2007 Grade: C-
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Editor’s Note: The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close – which means it’s time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from AJ Allmendinger to Yeley. Be sure to keep coming in every weekday this offseason for even more original content on Frontstretch!