By all accounts, JJ Yeley is one heck of a nice guy. I haven’t dealt with him directly during my three-year tenure on the NASCAR beat, but he’s known to be funny, relaxed, excitable, and just an all-around good person.
Too bad that reputation couldn’t translate into on-track success in a stock car.
Yeley was released by Hall of Fame Racing Wednesday, putting him out of his misery after a 21-race stint that defied everyone’s lowest expectations. You know you’re in rough shape when your team releases you just half-a-season into a three-year deal; not only was Yeley signed through 2010, primary sponsor DLP has re-upped for next season and shows no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
But Yeley’s continual barrage of poor performances on the racetrack left HoF Racing with no choice. It’s a sad day for owner and Arizona Diamondbacks CEO Jeff Moorad; after acquiring majority ownership from Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, he hoped he’d met his driver match: Yeley, a fellow Phoenix resident. But in hindsight, it proved to be one of the worst moves the then-second year driver could have made after being fired by Joe Gibbs. Immediately over the course of that summer, Yeley was rumored as a primary candidate to fill an open ride at Yates Racing, a move that could have left him with a fresh start and a new outlook on what it takes to run at the sport’s top level. There were five or six options out there, and Yeley’s age and potential for growth made him one of free agency’s top commodities. But in the end, Yeley spurned them, DEI, and the Wood Brothers to drive for a team that’s a satellite operation to the very organization from which he got fired – JGR.
As soon as Yeley signed on the dotted line, I remember letting out a groan and drawing immediate comparisons to Casey Atwood’s raw deal. If you’ve forgotten, Atwood was the promising rookie driver who originally filled the seat of Ray Evernham’s No. 19 Dodge in 2001 – before being dumped for Jeremy Mayfield after just one full season. Instead, Evernham kept the guy under contract and put him with a satellite team – the No. 7 – that didn’t have the resources to stay competitive. Atwood’s response was to have a miserable sophomore season, ending the year without a top-five finish and sitting on the sidelines after being fired.
Yeley didn’t come to HoF with the same type of bitterness, but he was never able to separate himself from the struggles experienced across the road at JGR. For the first time in HoF’s three-year history, he drove the car right out of the Top 35 in owner points – and in a touch of irony, the wreck that did it happened at Phoenix, both the team and Yeley’s hometown track. After that unexpected crash knocked them down to 36th in owner points, the team failed to qualify the next week at Talladega – another dubious first no one wants to wish upon anyone. Since then, Yeley’s missed the field four times while coming up with a season-best starting spot of only 22nd; that’s hardly the types of numbers you need to put up to remain competitive at this level.
Now, it’s hard to imagine, at 31, Yeley getting the same types of opportunities he was offered 12 months earlier. Especially with teams in danger of contracting in 2009, the veteran may have to take a ride in the Nationwide or Truck Series as his only option.
As for Yeley’s replacement, Brad Coleman has struggled in the Nationwide Series since moving over to the No. 27 Ford. He’s currently one of the lowest-ranked drivers to have run all the races, and has just one top-10 finish in 23 starts this year. Yeah, I know that slump doesn’t always translate into Sprint Cup; but at 20, you wonder if it’s too much, too soon for a kid that wasn’t even running a full Nationwide Series schedule just one year ago.
We’ll have to find out; but one thing we know now for sure is that Yeley just never was able to transition successfully into the dynamic of a single-car team. Nearly one year later, he’s still a nice guy; but as we say all the time, being nice just doesn’t cut it.