J.J. YELEY The Week After Tomorrow HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (March 27, 2007) -- If there was any hesitation in believing that Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) Car of Tomorrow would be a force to be reckoned with, this past weekend's performance at Bristol ...
The Week After Tomorrow
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (March 27, 2007) -- If there was any hesitation in believing that Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) Car of Tomorrow would be a force to be reckoned with, this past weekend's performance at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway cast aside any doubt on whether the team's next generation of race car was ready to perform.
Just a quick look at the numbers show how strong all three JGR machines were during the new car's debut at Bristol. Drivers J.J. Yeley, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin combined to lead 443 of the 504 laps available. For 88 percent of the Food City 500, a JGR car was leading the race.
Unfortunately, Stewart and Hamlin experienced a fuel pump problem that prevented both drivers from hoisting the trophy on Sunday. And Yeley, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Impala SS, also had an issue with his car during the race.
One hundred and twenty laps into the race, the header pipe on the No. 18's engine shook loose, forcing Yeley to pull behind the wall while green flag racing ensued. The repair cost Yeley valuable track time and forced the team to settle for a 36th-place finish.
While the result was disappointing, Yeley and the rest of the Interstate Batteries team know they had a car capable of a top-five finish. Yeley, along with teammates Stewart and Hamlin and everyone at JGR, will be combing through every last detail before heading to this weekend's second Car of Tomorrow race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
The good news for Yeley and Co. is that unlike other major American-based racing series -- namely the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, the Champ Car World Series or the IRL IndyCar Series, which has 15-, 16- and 17-race seasons, respectively -- the 36-week grind of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series has only five races in the books. There is still plenty of time -- 21 races to be exact -- until the cutoff at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway to make the top-12 in the Chase for the Nextel Cup's 10-race sprint for the championship.
Case in point is Yeley's JGR teammate Tony Stewart, who has two finishes of 35th or worse, but still remains in the 12th and final cutoff spot to race for his third championship in NASCAR's top series.
With several strong runs to kick-off 2007, including 10 laps led versus two laps led going into the same race last season, Yeley still sits among the top-15 in Nextel Cup points. It's a stark contrast to last year, when Yeley was 23rd in points after five races.
With last week's result well behind him, Yeley and the Interstate Batteries team know the grind of the Nextel Cup schedule is a marathon, not a sprint, and they know they have the cars and the personnel to rebound with a strong race in Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville.
It seems like JGR's cars were pretty strong overall at Bristol, but mechanical issues kept all three cars from good finishes. How much work has JGR put toward the Car of Tomorrow?
"Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing did a great job with the cars we took to Bristol. They were all very fast and competitive. I don't think it's a car the fab shop guys were looking forward to building, just because the tolerances on those cars are so minute compared to what you can get away with on the cars we are running now, but they did a great job. I think it makes building a car more time consuming and more of a headache because every car has to be virtually perfect in order to pass the template process. That is just NASCAR trying to make the rules that much tighter. It's great to see that the guys have done such a great job and have done their homework, and I know when we unload off the trailer at Martinsville that we have a shot to be competitive and a shot to win the race. You can bet that all the guys at JGR have gone back already this week and made sure what caused all three teams to not be able finish as well as we ran will be fixed."
Based on what you learned last weekend at Bristol, what will be the difference with running the Car of Tomorrow at Bristol at Martinsville?
"I think there are going to be huge differences. The teams have been working really hard on the travels in the car so they can run a different kind of spring. That was very difficult to do at Bristol because you see so much load because of the banking there. When you go to Martinsville, it's virtually a flat race track and it's going to take a completely different setup. It's going to be interesting to see a team dominate at Bristol and then head to Martinsville and really struggle. I wouldn't be surprised to see that at all. You might have some of those less funded teams that might have been struggling before have a better shot. With that being said, I think everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing has worked extremely hard, and I expect all three teams to be as strong at Martinsville as we were at Bristol."
How do you prepare yourself to race at a flat track like Martinsville verses racing on the high banks of Bristol?
"I've been to Martinsville twice now, and to me, it's like putting cones out in a parking lot and racing around them. Compared to racing at Bristol, the race track at Martinsville is completely flat. It's really hard to pass and there's really not a whole lot of two-wide racing. I think the first real test for the Car of Tomorrow will take place at Phoenix, Darlington and definitely at Dover."
How important is track position at Martinsville?
"Obviously, qualifying is going to be crucial. Track position is key. You could have a really fast race car and be stuck in 20th. You might be able to pass five or six cars, but if you're out front, you can take off and leave. You try to take what you learn from a previous race. Maybe it's something I was doing with the race car or something that Steve (Addington, crew chief) did to help me out to try to keep that track position the entire race so I can get a good finish."
Martinsville has always been a tough place to pass, but what's the best way to get around someone without spinning them out?
"When you get to a guy and race behind him for three or four laps and can't get by him and are clearly faster and maybe the guy starts cutting the door on you a bit, then you get to where you bump a little bit -- not so much that you wreck him, but to get him out of the road. Once the guy gets loose, he counter-steers, moves up the race track and you pass him. You have the more experienced guys in the Nextel Cup Series that don't have as much to prove that are better at this than others. That doesn't mean that wanting to win doesn't override going out there and taking it easy on someone. They're still going to go out there fully aware that guys are going to run into each other."
The last three races have been tough because you've well, but you don't have the finishes to show for it. Overall though, has this season started much better for you than last year?
"This season definitely started off much better. We are still not exactly where we should be in points. We had a couple of bad pit stops that hurt us in Atlanta and the same thing in Las Vegas, and then we had the issue where we had to take the car behind the wall to replace the header pipe at Bristol. If you go back and look at those, hopefully that doesn't affect us coming down to the last race to make the Chase at Richmond. We've been very fast and consistent and running in the top-10 in almost every race, but have not been able to put everything together to finish as well as the team is capable of the last couple of races. The most important thing for us is to stay consistent, and we will work hard to get back to that at Martinsville."
Do you think the taller and longer Car of Tomorrow makes it tougher to gauge where you are on the race track?
"The vision in these cars out of the front is better, almost like a truck because the windows are so large. Your vision behind you is not as good because of the rear wing. The problem that you might run into is that moving the drivers four inches over might change your perspective. That might make the difference between coming off the corner and hitting the wall or not hitting the wall, or roughing up another driver. It's going to be a little bit different. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of two-wide racing or passing in general at Bristol as there was in the past."
Had your crew practiced changing tires and making adjustments on the Car of Tomorrow prior to Bristol? What did the team learn after making pit stops at Bristol?
"It is completely different for all of the tire changers. The struggle with the Car of Tomorrow now is that they made the tolerances on these cars so much smaller and tighter than the cars of year's past. It's very difficult. Because of this we have cars that didn't pass inspection and will wind up being show cars somewhere. We took one of those cars, put a race engine in it and one of the transmissions used at Bristol during the test so that we could use it for pit practice. I went to the shop the week before Bristol and we practiced pit stops with an actual Car of Tomorrow so the guys could do pit stops and get used to it. The other problem is the distance from the back of the car where you make changes to the track bar. It's about four or five more inches. A lot of the guys couldn't reach to make the adjustments. We have special tools now, so instead of a guy having to reach, it actually has four different pieces on it so they can grab it and turn it without having to take the tire changer away from his duties. It's definitely different for all the guys on the team. Since we had the problem early in the race (at Bristol), we got plenty of practice with the new car under race conditions for the rest of the pit stops. They'll be able to take what they learned at Bristol and apply it to making stops this weekend at Martinsville."