JJ Yeley, now 38 years old, is a NASCAR survivor. Once a talented youngster, backed by the powerhouse Cup operation of Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s spent the last six years hoping to regain that rare opportunity. Jumping from team to team, within the back half of the Cup Series garage, this underdog has served as a lifeline for underfunded programs. Each small team has offered with it a glimmer of hope, a chance to stay relevant and build up a resume as Yeley looks to climb back into a Chase-contending position.
His latest job, driving full-time for BK Racing’s No. 23 car, is perhaps his best chance yet to take that step forward. Yeley spoke with Frontstretch about his newest ride, plans to run for a championship in a lower series and a little practice joke – filled with smoke – that went a little too far.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch.com: So how did your BK Racing partnership come about? How did you guys get together in the second half of last season and how did the sub opportunity become a long-term deal?
JJ Yeley: For me, it’s a great opportunity. It’s been a long time coming, actually. When Ron Devine and Wayne Press and the rest of the group were in the process of putting together BK Racing from the very beginning, myself and David Ragan were going to be their two primary drivers. But it was a process for them, purchasing Red Bull and trying to get everything done.
So it was the middle of January (2012) and they still didn’t have everything put together. I got nervous about waiting too long and took a ride. Even then, over the course of their existence we’ve been trying to get something figured out to where we could work together and it just never came about. This time, we have got everything put together. I filled in a little bit for them last year, when Ryan Truex was injured, and finished the season driving the No. 83 car. I get along very good with the entire group; they’re still relatively new to the sport. It’s a small team trying to survive, more or less. I think they’ve done a great job fielding two cars on a regular basis.
They’ve changed a lot of things over the offseason, looking ahead to 2015 and everything so far looks to be very positive.
Bowles: Now, you’ve got a lot of experience with small teams, on the Cup side of the garage over the last four years – perhaps more than anybody else on tour. What do you see here, different from the other places you’ve been that gives you hope BK will be that underdog who breaks through?
Yeley: Well, after last year driving for BK, I was really surprised by the amount of resources they had, being a small team. You just don’t usually see that out of some of the smaller teams. The small downfall they had was they simply didn’t have that affiliation you see some of the underdogs have with some of the larger teams.
But at the time, they had the support from Toyota and they were using that on an island, on their own, trying to make their race cars better. The encouraging part was they were trying to make them better, working on things in-house, the engine program. I know they’re trying to align themselves now with some of the bigger teams, and I know we’ve gotten a lot of support from Toyota. We’ve been to the wind tunnel, the pulldown, the seven-post, learned a lot of things from last year to this year. That’s going to be very important with the new testing rules.
Anytime NASCAR rolls out a new package, you’re either going to be really good or really bad out of the box. But I’m really encouraged by what my crew chief, Joe Williams, has found in the offseason. When you go to Daytona, superspeedways, it is what it is, but I think when we get to Atlanta, some of the other tracks… I expect a big improvement over what we had last year.
Bowles: Kyle Busch said last November he felt Toyota needed to be more cohesive, sharing information among all its programs. Do you feel like you all have taken a step in that direction over the offseason? And will having big teams willing to share, along with a small car count (10 teams) become an advantage for you?
Yeley: I definitely think it’s going to put BK in a unique position, one where they’ll benefit more so than some of the smaller teams. I don’t think you’ll see JGR working real tightly with Michael Waltrip Racing, say just because they’re still competition – they’re not necessarily a tier one versus a tier two team. Because there’s a rivalry there, you won’t see that.
But since BK is a smaller program, we’re different – we’re in a position to benefit from those teams looking for help. To share information but not have to pay the premium for it is a big plus.
Bowles: The new rules package we speak of is very similar to how the XFINITY Series set up their cars in recent years. With your success in that series, as of late could that turn into an advantage for you as well?
Yeley: I think it’s definitely still going to help. It seems like any time a new package is unveiled, there is a lot, lot more competition amongst all the teams. It seems the smaller teams have the capability to keep up. It’s usually as the season unwinds and those big budgets can be put to use that things will change. There’s no testing, but now they can put that money into technology… still, it’s going to take longer for those big teams to distance themselves from those with smaller budgets.
It is a sport of money, unfortunately, and without the big budget it’s still going to be difficult to go out there and put yourself in position to win on a weekly basis. But as a small team, being competitive every week is very, very important and knowing when you get to the superspeedways, anything can happen. Last year, I had a great run going driving the No. 83 car, ran in the top 10 at Talladega the majority of the day before we got wrecked on the back straightaway. Those type of runs are encouraging, knowing we’ve made our program that much better.
Bowles: Landon Cassill said something last fall, after his small team finished in the top 5 at Talladega, about how much his program focuses on superspeedway races. How do you change your approach, financially and mentally for the plate races, a place where it seems everyone can put themselves in position to win?
Yeley: I think it’s more mentally, knowing that NASCAR makes the speedway races equalized. Based off the shock package and the springs package, you have the same equipment as the rest of the competition. Money can’t change that because everything is regulated by NASCAR. It still comes down to horsepower and I think the restrictor plate side of it is pretty close; because of the way the packs work, you can be down on horsepower and still carry momentum, still put yourself in position to win a race.
When you take a lesser package to a mile-and-a-half, or even a mile or a short track now you’re looking at a difference in acceleration, a place where that and horsepower plays a much bigger role. So, anything can happen at superspeedways, and based off the way the rules are set for the Chase, that is absolutely the best opportunity for any small team to go in and steal a win.
Bowles: Your teammates this season – Jeb Burton, Matt DiBenedetto and Johnny Sauter – how much have you worked with them? How do you feel not only working with a full-time rookie, in Jeb but the entire Burton family that comes along with it?
Yeley: (Laughs) It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I met Jeb for the first time last week, when we were at the shop getting ready for Daytona, and he’s a very talented young driver with a lot of experience on his side (with his family). He’s going to be quick to learn because of (father) Ward, with his experience and I think (uncle) Jeff will be there to help as well. He’s going to have that knowledge and he’s determined to go out there and be competitive.
Where he’ll be grounded by his family is young guys, and I know I did this when I started you want to go out and prove something. Sometimes, you put yourself in bad positions because of it. I think, though because Jeb has so much knowledge behind him that may not be an issue.
Meanwhile, I’m going to be the best teammate that I can, and the better we work as a group, all three of us the stronger BK Racing will be. It’s usually when drivers have egos and you worry too much about yourself, maybe not so much the rest of the group that everything else becomes tough. There’s animosity on the team, once that happens and we can’t have that. So the better we get along as a team, and that goes for drivers, crew chiefs, the whole nine yards the more successful we can be.
Bowles: OK, before we get to the fun questions… what are your plans for lower series in 2015? Is that official?
Yeley: It is official. I will be coming back to drive the No. 28 Texas Spirits Toyota for the entire season in the XFINITY Series. That team made a manufacturer change – we actually ran a Toyota at Homestead. We were just so limited trying to run the Dodge bodies and the Dodge engines – without Dodge coming back in the sport, NASCAR really didn’t want us to do a lot to the bodies. So, we made that change and Eric McClure will be my teammate. So it will be a two-car team, and I’m really looking forward to running for a championship on the XFINITY side.
I’m very optimistic. We found out late last year, from a horsepower standpoint we were pretty far off on the torque numbers too. Knowing we are much closer on that side, plus the Toyota bodies are going to produce a little less drag and a little more downforce. Everything we’ve done in the offseason has been positive and to know we were a team that could consistently run in the top 15, shooting for top 10s, that’s encouraging. The way that series is, you want to win races but consistency usually pays big dividends. If we make sure a couple of DNFs don’t happen again, we’re a team that could definitely go for the top 5 in points and potentially pick off a couple of wins here and there.
Bowles: OK, fun questions and then we let you go. Name a driver in the garage area that’s your good friend, who you’d still talk to even if you didn’t have a racing career.
Yeley: I would say Jeremy Clements of the XFINITY Series. He’s a good guy and he’s an underdog in the sport that I think has a lot more talent than people would recognize.
Bowles: What’s the best practical joke played on you… or the best one you played on someone else?
Yeley: Well, I would say probably one of my best practical jokes at racetracks was we used to put diesel fuel in the engine and it would make the engine smoke profusely. We did that at Michigan Speedway one year and they actually chased me into the garage, right into the driver / owner lot. They threatened me with a smoke machine because I basically shut down the main drag, it was so smoky.
We worked everything out. I didn’t get in trouble, but we didn’t do it anymore.
Bowles: Finally, if you could add a track to the schedule you don’t currently race on, a place you feel like you have an advantage what would it be?
Yeley: Oh, I’d go to Eldora. I’d take the XFINITY Series to Eldora, maybe look at even taking the Cup Series to Eldora. The Truck Series has been there twice, they’ve had a lot of success and every driver I’ve spoken to loved it – said it was the most fun they’ve ever had. So I would love to give that a shot.