Having been around NASCAR for more than a decade, 2016 was an absorbing year for JJ Yeley, as he turned 40 years old.
He went into the season-opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway without a ride in any of the top three touring series, which automatically eliminated him from playoff contention in all series for missing a race.
The next week, his year changed.
Yeley took over the No. 14 TriStar Motorsports car at Atlanta Motor Speedway, piloting the machine for six races, with a best finish of 19th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, before taking over the No. 44 car, replacing David Starr. That led to two top-12 finishes in the first three races with Frank Kerr as crew chief.
Yeley finished the season 2016 with three top-10 finishes, the most in any series for him since 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series. His 14th-place points effort was down two positions from 2015 with JGL Racing.
But more interesting: for the first time since 2009, Yeley failed to compete in a Cup Series event. That said, though he didn’t compete in NASCAR’s top series, he paid attention to its new additions, including the charter system, fresh to the sport in 2016.
“It’s been up and down,” Yeley said of the charter system. “I think there has been too much of a benefit for the big teams, and it didn’t help the smaller teams quite enough. The teams that really needed that extra money on a weekly basis still won’t see it. Any team that runs behind 25th in points is making less money than they did last year.”
Competing in the XFINITY Series, Yeley did not have to worry about securing a charter (awarded to 36 teams in the Cup Series), which has not yet trickled down to the XFINITY or Camping World Truck series.
As part of the Race Team Alliance and the charter system, NASCAR and team owners decided to pay the Cup Series champion less money than in past years. The goal was to spread money more equally throughout the top 25 drivers and teams.
But according to Yeley, that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
“It needs some tweaking still, but I don’t know if that will happen,” he said. “The goal is to do something to guarantee the sponsors. The problem is still trying to find those sponsors. You are taking purse money away from a team that really needs it because they don’t have sponsorship, that’s the biggest problem with the charter system.”
Though Yeley was not a frequent face in the Cup Series garage in 2016, he was seen mentoring some of NASCAR’s younger talent. Cole Whitt and Matt DiBenedetto both competed for TriStar Motorsports in multiple XFINITY Series races, leaning on the NASCAR veteran for advice.
As Yeley progresses toward the end of his NASCAR career, this is something he will likely be doing more of — though he’s not thinking about retirement.
“I think mentally I’m still in my twenties,” Yeley said. “I know physically, I hurt a little bit more than I used to. Retirement, for me, is something I haven’t considered.”
“Jeff Gordon is a legend of the sport, he was at the point of his career that he wanted something different,” Yeley said. “I get that with his family and children. For Tony, I’ve been around Tony a lot, I used to be a teammate of his, he’s about having fun and enjoying racing. The past couple of years it hasn’t been there for him. He hasn’t seen the success that he really wanted to. If he was running better, do I think he would have it another year? Possibly.”
Heading into the 2017, Yeley is likely to return with TriStar Motorsports, where he had a season-high finish of eighth at Dover International Raceway in 2016, though nothing is set in stone just yet.
“My goal is not to retire and to be back next year and try to make this program better than it was this year to where we can have a shot at making the Chase,” Yeley said. “I love racing so much. I can’t imagine doing anything different than what I’m doing now.”