J.J. YELEY Back Home Again in Indiana (Sort Of) HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- What do Tony Stewart, Tony Raines, Ryan Newman, David Stremme, and J.J. Yeley have in common? All are natives of the state of Indiana. Well, the truth of the matter...
Back Home Again in Indiana (Sort Of)
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- What do Tony Stewart, Tony Raines, Ryan Newman, David Stremme, and J.J. Yeley have in common? All are natives of the state of Indiana.
Well, the truth of the matter for Yeley, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is that he actually hails from Phoenix. But he should, at the very least, be considered an honorary native of Indiana.
Following the career path blazed by Indiana natives Stewart and Newman, Yeley turned success in the open-wheel ranks of USAC's Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown divisions to opportunity in NASCAR. He spent almost six years living near Indianapolis starting in 1997, racing the historic short track venues, hoping an Indy Car or NASCAR team would give him his big break.
Wins in USAC and regularity at the front of the field earned Yeley a ride for the 1998 Indianapolis 500. He qualified a solid 13th, becoming the youngest driver at the time, at age 21, to qualify for the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He made the most of his maiden voyage, finishing a very respectable ninth in his first and only Indianapolis 500.
In 2003, Yeley set a USAC record with 24 wins in a single season, breaking A.J. Foyt's record of 19 wins set in 1961. Yeley handily won the Triple Crown, then signed a multi-year contract with Joe Gibbs Racing that began with a limited NASCAR Busch Series schedule in 2004.
Fast forward to 2007 and Yeley will be making his second start in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard this weekend at racing's most historic facility.
Even if it's just for a weekend, Yeley will always feel like Indiana is his home away from home. And he'll hope to make the most of his stay yet again.
J.J. YELEY (Driver, No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet):
I know Phoenix is really home, but does being back in the Indianapolis area make you feel like it's your second home?
"It is. I guess I got my break because I ran at short tracks all over Indiana in the USAC Series. I ran the Indianapolis 500 in 1998 and then got my first shot at running a NASCAR race there. I really look forward to going back. As a kid, before I started racing, my family used to travel to races in the summers in Indiana. We did that for four or five years. I lived there for close to six years. I raced there, lived there. I guess it would be a second home. I made that step from being a normal, nobody race car driver to a champion who made it to the next level because I ran in Indiana. We qualified in the top-10 and ran there all day before we got caught up in a late-race incident with another car that cost us what I thought was going to be a top-10 finish. So, going back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there's so much history that goes with that race and that track. It's one of the biggest races we have all season and it would be great to come back to Indiana and win."
You've now run an Indy car and stock car at Indianapolis. What makes Indy a little more special than some of the other places you go during a season?
"I think it's just because of the history and the fact the Indianapolis 500 has been held since the early 1900s. It just has so much tradition and heritage and it's very unique compared to any other race track out there. It's just a fast, fun race track to get to be on. It's always a challenge to get your car to handle how you want it to and that's also what makes the track tough to race on as well."
Last year, you qualified well in this race and ran well all day. How important is qualifying to your success in the race, especially at Indianapolis?
"It's really important at Indy because it's a really difficult race track to pass on. It's narrow and the aerodynamics are very big there because the track is so fast. Last year, we qualified well and had the track position the whole day, but took some two-tire stops and lost some of it, and that put us in a tough position at the end. That's something we'll have to keep in mind for this year's race. Hopefully, we can go back and see if we can have some success with a competitive car like we had last year."
When you were in USAC, were your eyes set on an open-wheel career and running the Indianapolis 500? Did you ever think that you'd be running a stock car at Indy?
"For me, I just didn't know how to make that step to get into NASCAR. All I knew was that I was a Saturday-night racer who wanted to race. Indianapolis was just what you had to do. You got to race around there three, four times a week and that is the heartland for Indy cars. If you're racing well, you're doing great, you're winning races, you're going to get noticed sooner by someone in the IRL (Indy Racing League) than you might have in years past from someone in NASCAR. For me, the IRL opportunity came first. It was a good opportunity and I took it. It started out good and then it started to taper off because the team started running out of funding. All of a sudden, you're in equipment that might not be as good or as competitive. As a driver, you can't make an Indy car run better because you're a great race car driver or even a good race car driver. If you took Tony Stewart and you put him in a 15th-place Indy car, he would run eighth to 10th, but he couldn't take a 15th-place car and go win with it. As a driver, that's depressing. To know that no matter how hard you drive, or how perfect a race you drive, if you're not in equipment that's capable of winning, you'll never win. I think you have a better chance of doing that in stock cars. I finally got the opportunity to come to NASCAR. Now, after being here, this is definitely a better fit for a guy who comes from a Midget or a Sprint car, where the car slides around and you have to adapt to the race track verses anything you could ever do in an Indy car."
Is Indy a finicky race track to get a handle on? Does it change almost by the hour?
"Something that you really have to pay a lot of attention to, more so at Indy than at any other race track, is the wind. They have three different wind socks throughout the race track. The wind can make such a huge difference to the race cars, especially because Indy isn't a very wide race track. It's very flat. You're struggling to have grip, then all of the sudden you have a 15- to 20-mph wind pushing you in one direction. It can drastically change the handling characteristics of the car."
After last week in Chicago you would like to be qualifying better since it took you a lot of time to try to gain track position. How important is qualifying wherever you go?
"It's just a hit-and-miss process. When we unloaded at Chicago, we missed a little bit on getting the right front-end setup and missed some practice time trying to get that setup right. The car was a bit too free in qualifying, but I thought it was going to be a pretty decent lap. A tenth of a second separated a lot of race cars at Chicago and the lap didn't turn out as well as we would have wanted. We had a pretty good baseline last year at Indy and the race track there generally doesn't change much year to year. We feel like we have more horsepower now and I think we have a little better bodies than we did last year, as well. With those advances we should be even more competitive."
With how competitive NEXTEL Cup Series races are, how important is it to unload your car for practice close to where it needs to be to qualify and race well?
"We'll probably start directly in qualifying trim when we go to Indy. It's difficult to get a bunch of runs in because of the shape and size of the race track. I think that we had a good setup last year, so we'll work off of that and make it better. It's definitely not a lot of fun to unload off the pace and try to get it where it needs to be because you are pretty limited on time to find the right setup."