Daytona 500: Yeley preview

J.J. YELEY No More Mr. Nice Guy HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 7, 2006) -- Alice Cooper's 1976 rock hit "No More Mr. Nice Guy" starts with the lyrics, "I used to be such a sweet thing, 'till they got a hold of me," and it might be a fitting...

No More Mr. Nice Guy

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 7, 2006) -- Alice Cooper's 1976 rock hit "No More Mr. Nice Guy" starts with the lyrics, "I used to be such a sweet thing, 'till they got a hold of me," and it might be a fitting description for J.J. Yeley's sophomore season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

With his rookie stripe having been shed this off-season, Yeley expects 2007 to more closely resemble Cooper's lyrics as he pilots the vaunted No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing on a second tour of duty in NASCAR's premiere racing division.

After winning 51 races and five United States Auto Club (USAC) championships prior to his entry into the NASCAR Busch Series in 2004, the second generation racer and self-described "Saturday night racer who has been fortunate enough to hit the big time" -- did just that in 2006 as he succeeded veteran Bobby Labonte as the driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet.

But what was supposed to be a dream season for Yeley turned out to be rougher than anticipated. Bad luck bit the team on several occasions, with an inordinate amount of late-race flat tires combined with a few rookie mistakes off-setting the team's best finish of eighth -- logged twice, once at California Speedway in February and again at New Hampshire International Speedway in September.

This past off-season brought time for Yeley and the rest of the Interstate Batteries team to reflect on their fortunes, and more importantly, how to turn them around. Yeley looked no further than himself, where on the race track he felt he was too passive, and more worried about gaining respect from his peers than driving hard. While trying so desperately to gain respect from his competitors, he felt he gave some of those very competitors an opportunity to take advantage of him, something he has vowed to change for 2007.

Crew Chief Steve Addington -- returning for a third full season as crew chief of the Interstate Batteries team -- also decided to use the off-season to make several roster changes in hopes of creating a team focused on bringing the No. 18 car back to victory lane.

The team began making changes with six races to go in 2006, naming Kyle Chapman, who doubles as Yeley's business manager, the team's spotter. Four more personnel changes were made prior to the 2007 season, most notably the promotion of mechanic Cory Quick to car chief. In addition to Quick and Chapman, Addington brought in others Yeley felt comfortable working with, including front end mechanic Wesley Sherrill, who worked with Yeley on the No. 18 Busch Series car the last two seasons, and Brad Sutton, who also worked on the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Busch Series car with Yeley in 2005. The last change came with the addition of Jeff Price as the team's new shock specialist.

To finish the off-season makeover, several Interstate Batteries employees, including Chairman Norm Miller, worked to design a new lightning bolt paint scheme, adding some extra pizzazz to the familiar Interstate Batteries green.

While Yeley has remained the likable personality he's always been, he will take the off-season makeover, along with lessons learned from his rookie season, and apply them when he straps himself into the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet on Feb. 18 for his second Daytona 500 start.

Going into your second season on the Nextel Cup circuit, what are you looking to change for 2007?

"My biggest problem is that I've been too passive. I've made sure that when I go on the race track I don't want to be the guy that's taking someone out. I want to get the reputation of racing guys clean. That way, I get raced the same. There's a point where that works and there's a point where you are going to get taken advantage of and get shoved out of the road. Now that I have my rookie season out of the way, it's not going to happen. I don't care if it's a rookie or a veteran, a guy I grew up watching or had a lot of respect for, if he wants to go down there and not race me clean like I would race him, then he's going to see a different side of J.J. Yeley in 2007."

What did the team learn from pre-season testing at Daytona that you can bring back for the race?

"The guys worked really hard. Something that is really encouraging for me is that we have a couple new guys on the team and everything went very smoothly as far as making changes on the car in a timely fashion. As far as the cars, they both started out very good. Compared to where we were last year coming to Daytona, we made some huge gains. All that goes back to the guys at the shop, the fab shop and the engine shop. And on top of that, I learned so much last year from the restrictor plate races that it's made me a smarter race car driver."

Is chemistry just as important on a race team as it is in any other professional sport?

"As much time as you spend on the road, I think sometimes chemistry is more important than anything. All these crew guys spend more time with each other than they do with their families during the race season. I can already see that it's a tighter knit group than what we started with last year. I guess the personalities all seem to be getting along. Last year was a rough year, and when you have a season like that, it takes its toll on not only myself, but also the guys on the crew, because they're all a part of this too. Everyone seems to be really upbeat for the 2007 season, and we're looking forward to some good things happening."

You had so much success in USAC and other forms of racing, how did you feel after your rough rookie experience in 2006?

"For me, the off-season is a good time to look back on of all the things that I did wrong, where we were weak as a team, and make those changes. I feel that at Joe Gibbs Racing, we've made a lot of changes, and all of them are going to be for the better. To look back, I was just too worried about track position and too many things other than just going out there and driving the car as hard as I could and making everyone else chase me. If you're always worried about someone else, you're generally the one who is going to get dumped or have something happen to them. Things are definitely going to be different this year."

What is it going to take to get you consistently in a position to win and finish in the top-five?

"It's really tough. It's such a small gap where you can have a top-five car all the way to 15th. It's almost all track position because of the way the aerodynamics work. Is the Car of Tomorrow going to fix that? Nobody really knows. We haven't had 43 of those cars on the race track at one time. When you unload your race car, you have to be very close. With the amount of practice that you get anymore -- especially with a driver that hasn't had a lot of experience with stock cars or didn't come from them -- if your car is way off you just don't have enough practice to get the car close enough. During the race, if you don't have the track position from the get-go, you'll never catch up. It's amazing how easy that sounds, but if your car doesn't handle well when you unload, the changes are so huge on the cars that there are so many things you can do to make the cars drive different. It's seems like if your car is off, you can change everything in the world and it still won't get you the three-tenths you need to be as fast as the fastest car on the board. I think that all comes down to strategy and bringing the proper car from the shop to go racing."

Interstate Batteries and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Team is now the longest active primary sponsor/team combination in NASCAR. How much pressure is there to do well for them?

"It's amazing that they've been in the sport as long as they have, especially for a small company like they are. I know everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing have done all they can to keep them in the sport. I'm just proud to drive the 18 car with them on board and I want to help get the 18 car back to where it was in 2000 and in the late 90s where that car competitively ran in the top-five every week and competed for a championship."

With the change in the points system and five more points for winning, do you think that will change anyone's driving habits?

"I think there are drivers that are going to be more aggressive, but I don't really think it's going to change much because we are all competitive and it doesn't matter if we are going to get 10 more bonus points for winning the race. There are drivers out there that if they are going to win the race, they might take that chance and those points might help them at the end of the year because they might have wrecked more often. At the end of the year, the champion is still going to be the most consistent and fastest guy out there."

With the Car of Tomorrow and Toyota entering Nextel Cup this season, do you think there are more wild cards entering 2007 than in year's past?

"There's definitely going to be more wild cards in play. It's going to be interesting to see how Toyota changes the face of NASCAR. They've obviously put all their eggs in one basket to make sure that when they came to NASCAR that they were going to be competitive and try to win races. It's great for the sport and it's going to make the other manufacturers work three times as hard to make sure they can still go out there and compete. With the amount of teams that are coming up, you don't have five teams anymore that are going to have four cars for each team. I think the competition level is going to be higher than it's been in the past."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , J.J. Yeley
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing