When you think of that all-around racer, maybe compiling a list of those who have seen dirt, open wheel and stock cars, you’d be silly to forget JJ Yeley.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Christopher “JJ” Yeley quickly became one of the most talented young talents on racetracks around the country. Winning Rookie of the Year honors in USAC National Sprint Cup Series in 1997, Yeley soon found opportunities ina big way int he Indy Racing League [IRL].
In 1998, Yeley made his IRL debut at Phoenix International Raceway for Sinden Racing and just two months later, the then-21-year-old would already line up on the grid for the Indianapolis 500. Finishing ninth in John Menard’s No. 44, Yeley would have three more starts that season before returning with Byrd-McCormack Motorsports in the 2000 season.
Becoming only the second driver in USAC’s top divisions to complete the Triple Crown in one season in 2003, Yeley next eyed an opportunity in stock cars as his days with Joe Gibbs Racing started at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the XFINITY Series.
Since then, Yeley and JGR saw four years across both XFINITY and Sprint Cup, with Yeley finishing top 5 in the XFINITY championship in 2006.
Jumping to 2016, Yeley has only grown from the early days of open wheel. The latter system through JGR gave Yeley the chance to stay in the sport for years as he continues to fight on the racetrack each week in the XFINITY Series.
Racing for TriStar Motorsports in their No. 44 Zachry Toyota, Yeley has quickly gained the attention of the series by finishing 12th in his first race in the ride at Richmond International Raceway in April.
Frontstretch sat down with Yeley at Dover International Speedway to chat about his early days at Joe Gibbs Racing, his Indianapolis 500 experience and about opportunities in Sprint Cup, IndyCar and Camping World Trucks that may come about in the years to come.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start with the track here at Dover. Is this place really a monster to race on?
JJ Yeley: It is. I think mainly because: A. The speeds are so fast here. But because of the banking on the straightaways, you fight the car almost as much down the straightaways as you do the corners. Your typical mile-and-a-half racetrack you get a little bit of time to kind of take a rest, take a break, check your mirrors. Here, you don’t get that.
Because of the speeds and the way the racetrack is, you just don’t ever catch a break. It’s kind of like Bristol but the speeds are twice as fast.
You have a lot of XFINITY and Sprint Cup starts here. The track hasn’t changed too much but how have the changing cars adapted to this track over the years for you?
In the XFINITY Series, with the tapered spacer and the way the sport has evolved, when you run here at Dover, you spend a lot of time on the gas. So, even though we have less horsepower than what the Cup cars so, the speed difference really isn’t that great.You speed a lot of time on the gas, you have to be very aggressive for basically the entire race. That’s the biggest difference between the XFINITY Series versus the Cup. When they throw the green, you’re racing the entire time elbows up.
With the new format for the Dash 4 Cash and the race being shortened, you really just don’t have the time for your car to be ill-handling. The other series you make multiple pit stops to fix your car You really need to work hard on having a good driving racecar as soon as they drop the green flag.
Catanzareti: Talk about this relationship with TriStar and how it’s transpired into this 2016 season.
Yeley: I’ve had a relationship with TriStar through the engines I ran when I was with JGL Racing the last two seasons. And after last year, we decided to make a change there at JGL. They went a different direction and I came over here to TriStar Motorsports. It’s been great. I started the season off in the [No.] 14 car with Eddie Pardue as my crew chief.
We had a lot of really strong runs, everything was in the top 20. And I felt like, as a group, their program had made some pretty big gains from where they were last year. We were trying to seek some sponsorship and were still in the process before they decided to make a little change over here on the Zachry Toyota and the No. 44 car.
I got in the car at Richmond and had a fantastic run. Went on last week to Talladega and we were very, very competitive and got caught up on the last lap.
So far, it’s been a lot of fun. The guys worked really hard, and that’s the best part about TriStar Motorsports. It’s a family-owned operation and it’s run by a pretty small group of people, but they all have so much dedication and heart that goes into everything they do. When it works and puts that much effort into it, it just makes you want to give that much more too. It’s more of a family-type of program versus some of the bigger operations where it’s a little bit more business.
Catanzareti: Can you talk about the process of getting into the car at Richmond? It was kind of an odd situation but you got into it and had such a strong run, almost got a top 10. Describe the process of getting into the car for the first time.
Yeley: Luckily, for everyone I guess, me and David are very similar in size. Actually, I wore his uniform and everything. It wasn’t like we had to spend a lot of time trying to get me comfortable in the seat or have to move a lot of things around. For me, Richmond has never been one of my stronger racetracks, so when they said ‘Hey we need you to jump in there,’ I was a little bit worried because it was at a place where I don’t really always look forward to going to.
Frankie Kerr is an old sprint car racer, we’ve known each other for a long time before we made it into NASCAR. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him as a crew chief. He did some different things – a little unorthodox setup-wise. As soon as we started making laps, I was like ‘Wow, this thing is really, really fast.’ Again, the car handled well right off the trailer and those are the important things.
It was good for everybody. Zachry has been really excited so far and I’m glad to represent such a large company with so many employees. Really, this program is built for those guys to get them excited is what we’re trying to do.
Catanzareti: Did that Richmond run have an effect on your future with this team? Was it kind of down to how you were going to perform in that race or did that strong run keep you in this ride for the season?Yeley: Really, that’s not a question that I can answer. Obviously, it was a great run for me. I would hope that it was what Zachry was looking for for them to make a change. I know they didn’t make their sole decision on that particular race and there was a lot of other factors that went into it.
But after Talladega, having another strong run, they felt like, for them as a company moving forward in the sport, that they were looking forward to trying to do something different.
Even today we unloaded and we were top 15 pretty much all of practice and the car is driving good. Again, for a program that’s small and trying to grow, I think we have a pretty good shot right now.
Catanzareti: You have such a broad experience in NASCAR. What advantages have you seen in XFINITY so far? More than most drivers in this series, you have so much experience. Where does that play advantage when it comes to this series?
Yeley: For me, I would say it’s just a matter of getting the car handling right to where, when we start the race, we’re not having to make a lot of changes. It’s tough to do because the sport evolves so quickly that the setups change dramatically. This year, with the XFINITY Series going to bump stops, it’s almost kind of like starting over. It’s more similar for me just for a feel-wise from what we had on the Sprint Cup side for the last couple years. A lot of it goes to Frankie having a lot of experience on the Cup side.
That really sped up the process for us catching up to where the Cup-owned XFINITY teams already had that information. That’s been a big boost for us.
Catanzareti: We’re in the month of May right now, it’s a very special time in racing, special time for you. Going back to the Coke 600 in 2007, you got your career-best finish there. What did that do for you career at that particular time in that No. 18 car?
Yeley: Obviously, that was my best finish at the Cup level. It was just – the whole event was a learning event for me. We were getting down to the end and we had to have a little bit of fuel. As a young guy not knowing what I needed to do in stock cars and I had crew chiefs screaming at me to save fuel. I learned, from a patience standpoint, that you can make a stock car go faster.
From a career standpoint, it really opened my eyes to things I was doing behind the steering wheel that I needed to change. When you get to this level, it’s hard to go ask a lot of drivers the things you need to know and learn. Because my time in NASCAR was so accelerated – I went to the Cup Series very, very quick – I missed out on learning a lot of things that the drivers get to do now in the XFINITY Series.
It was an eye-opener for me as well as a learning experience. But it was a great race and it was one of the highlights of my career still.
Catanzareti: Talk about doing the Indy 500, doing that in 1998. What went through your head the moment you realized you were going to be able to be in that race?
Yeley: It really never even sunk in, and even now it still doesn’t. The fact that I was so young and got the opportunity to go do it and [had] very limited pavement experience at the time. The Indianapolis 500 was literally like my 14th time ever racing on pavement. When you tell people that, they’re kind of in shock.
It was a great run, especially for a small team. I was actually, this year, had some meetings and some discussions about trying to participate in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. It looked like it was going to be a really strong possibility around February. Unfortunately, in April, everything kind of fell apart with it.
It is something I would like to try to possibly do again. Their sport has changed so dramatically from where it was when I was running. It would be a little more difficult to do. But as long as you get with a good program, I think you could still go and run well.
Again, it was a great race. The fans there were fantastic. It’s a great, great event. I’m sure this year being the 100th running, it’s going to be more like the old days where the grandstands are going to be packed and there’s going to be a lot of excitement.
Catanzareti: Did you ever talk to guys like Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart who have done the Indy 500 since then? Kurt did The Double, did that play a factor into you wanting to go back again since he was able to do it?
Yeley: It did a little bit. It was mostly sponsor-driven and the group I was talking to wanted to do Indy. We put the cart before the horse and started working the programs to where I could run and do The Double. I would’ve actually have done the triple because I would have been in the XFINITY Series, too. Again, it just didn’t work out. It’s nothing I’m going to rule out as a possibility for maybe next year, too.
Catanzareti: How many times have you been to the Indy 500 since then? Do you go every year, do you watch it on TV, is it still that can’t-miss race?
Yeley: I still watch it. Obviously, every year since then I’ve been running in the Coke 600. I’m not going to fly to go watch it and then come back to Charlotte to go run. It’s definitely one aim going to watch on TV. The race has gotten better, the competition level for those guys has gotten a lot closer. When you have 10 or 15 guys still on the lead lap trying to win the race in the end, it’s a big difference from years and years ago when there were maybe three or four cars.
I’m a racer, I’ll watch about anything. if I’m not racing I’m going to catch it whenever I can.
Catanzareti: Is the pre-race to the 500 – how different is it really? you have that big of crowd there, they introduce your name with everybody. You were racing against legends back in ’98. What was that experience like for you the first time?
Yeley: It was definitely one of those things you never forget. There were so many colors and the fans. The pre-race and everything that leads up to the Indianapolis 500 is almost bigger than the race itself. Going through Carb Day and the way the fans are allowed to interact is very unique and a very cool thing.
Ultimately, I think that’s what’s kept the fans coming back year after year after year, is the ability to go and enjoy themselves, go have a picnic in the infield and still catch all the racing action at the same time.
Catanzareti: Tony Stewart was in that race. Where were you guys relationship-wise? Did you race in dirt before then, was that an early memory for you two?
Yeley: No, at that point I was actually a satellite teammate of Tony’s because we were driving for John Menard at the time. I had run against Tony plenty of times on dirt and still did after that point. He’s always been one of those guys that everyone’s kind of looked up to, me included. He paved the way for dirt racers to get into IRL, get into NASCAR. I had him as a teammate, I had him as an owner.
Ultimately, he’s the biggest racer, race fan, lover of the sport that still exists. When people in my era look back at legends, you think of Dale Sr., A.J. Foyt, you go back to the early ages of sprint cars and Indy cars. I think as these next generations come up and come through, Tony Stewart is going to be that next guy that you think of. He’s the all-around guy that can do it all.
Catanzareti: What was your first impression when you heard he was going to be hanging it up after this year?
Yeley: I’m not completely surprised. Obviously, he’s gone through some pretty tough things here in the last two or three years. I know he’s not going to quit racing, it’s just going to give him the opportunity to go have fun. If he wants to go race a dirt late model or if he wants to go race sprint car, he can go do it and he doesn’t have to tie in or worry about the NASCAR aspect or the owner Tony Stewart. He just gets to be a racecar driver that wants to go race on Saturday night or Tuesday night or whatever night he feels like.
I think he’s at the point in his career where he’s accomplished everything he wants to accomplish and he wants to go out there and enjoy himself.
Catanzareti: What about running the Truck Series at Eldora? Would you like to do that?
Yeley: I’ve looked into it a couple times. I came really close two years ago to fill in for someone to go run Eldora. It’s a great racetrack, I’ve won a lot there in a midget sprint car. It would definitely be a different experience racing a truck there. I would hate to go there not completely in a position to win the race.
Being in both other series, it’s difficult to either put sponsorship together or just go jump into a truck and find something that’s competitive enough to go win. I’ve kind of shied away from it until that right situation comes along. We’ll see how things go the next couple of months. I’ve had some people that have shown some interest in going and doing it so we’ll see. I’ve definitely not crossed that one off just yet.
Catanzareti: Talking about competitive equipment, you were obviously with Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 18. You were with guys like Denny Hamlin and Tony. You had such a high level with one of the biggest teams in the sport. What was that experience, getting it rather early in your stock car career, what did that do for you?Yeley: It was huge. I had a lot of top 5s and top 10s in both series. It gave me the credibility to where I could still be in the sport now and allow myself to learn to stay here and be competitive enough. Unfortunately, my time at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe was still coaching the Redskins so I didn’t get to see a lot of him.
Everyone spoke so highly of him, he had so much respect that when he did have a day off whenever it may have been, during the offseason, he could come into the shop. Everyone just flocked to him because he’s such a great leader.
J.D. [son of Joe] was pretty much the guy in charge and he did a fantastic job. But I know there was a huge difference between the two.
Back then, we were very competitive – not the dominance they have right now, those guys have definitely been on top of their game now. This sport, everything goes in cycles as far as the big teams. Now Hendrick, most guys are struggling a little bit.
But it was great being a part of a program that was that large that put that much effort into the program to go win races and try to win championships. It was definitely a lot of fun.
Catanzareti: Do you see any opportunities getting back into the Sprint Cup Series?
Yeley: There are. The sport has changed a lot more this year than in the past because of the Charter system and some of the things NASCAR has put in place. I’ve been in constant conversation with a program that we’re getting closer to their sponsorship finalized. Hopefully, if everything goes as planned should debut in about 60 days. There might be an opportunity here before the end of the season I’ll be back in the Sprint Cup Series.
Catanzareti: Final question, how does TriStar compare to every other team you’ve been with? What do you believe makes TriStar a special organization to be with?
Yeley: I think it’s a great program mainly because of the people that are involved in it. you can buy all these pieces and build these cars and do all these things and usually it’s the people that make the biggest difference. Again, its a small company, not a lot of employees, and everyone gives 100 percent all the time.
Any time you someone who puts that much heart and sole into it, that kind of love with out-perform people who do it just as a job. We work very closely to each other and I think that’s where we will find our success.
[Below is an unedited video capture our out interview with JJ Yeley.]