Hooray for Hollywood HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Aug. 29, 2006) - Tom Cruise. Kevin Costner. Dennis Quaid. J.J. Yeley? Cruise, Costner and Quaid have all starred in blockbuster movies with this basic plotline. Hero gets big break. Hero enjoys ...
Hooray for Hollywood
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Aug. 29, 2006) - Tom Cruise. Kevin Costner. Dennis Quaid. J.J. Yeley?
Cruise, Costner and Quaid have all starred in blockbuster movies with this basic plotline. Hero gets big break. Hero enjoys success. Hero gets knocked down. Hero has to pull himself up. Hero succeeds at crucial moment. Hero rides off into sunset.
J.J. Yeley, driver of the No. 18 Imitrex (sumatriptan succinate) Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, is starring in the same type of role, except he's not in a movie. He's in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Yeley is a rookie at the pinnacle of motorsports, a shining achievement in and of itself. But while getting to Nextel Cup is indeed worthy, finding success is more tribulation than adulation.
The 29-year-old racer is proof-positive of that. In just his second race this season, Yeley finished eighth at California Speedway to notch his first career top-10 in Nextel Cup. Six other top-15 finishes have been recorded - solid outings for any rookie - but far more have been taken away by late race misfortune.
After a string of results in July where Yeley finished 10th at Chicagoland, 12th at New Hampshire and 11th at Pocono (Pa.), the next four races saw potential top-10s turn into dismal finishes of 30th or worse. He was collected in a crash at Indianapolis. Endured a flat tire on the last lap at Watkins Glen (N.Y.). Cut a tire resulting in a crash at Michigan. And was tagged when another driver spun at Bristol (Tenn.).
As he returns to California Speedway for Sunday's Nextel Cup race, Yeley is ready to put his recent misfortune in the rearview mirror and get back to the kind of groove that earned him an eighth-place finish 23 races ago.
The driver of the No. 18 Imitrex (sumatriptan succinate) Chevrolet is more than capable, for Yeley got his NASCAR break by winning and winning often.
Just like his teammate, two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart, Yeley is a winner of the coveted USAC Triple Crown.
The United States Auto Club's top-three national divisions - Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown - host some of the most hotly contested open-wheel races in the country. Winning in any one division is difficult, never mind all three. But not only did Yeley win in each division, he won each division's championship - in a single year.
Just as Stewart won the Triple Crown in 1995, Yeley did it in 2003. They are the only drivers to record such a feat, but Yeley did it with the kind of panache expected in Hollywood. He won an astounding 24 USAC races, breaking the record of 19 wins in a single season, set by the legendary A.J. Foyt in 1961.
So, it's all there. History. Talent. Desire. Heartbreak. All that's missing is the breakthrough moment. With Hollywood as his backdrop, Yeley has cast himself as the one riding into the sunset.
You've had several strong runs in the last few weeks, but bad luck seems to hit you at the end of the race. If your luck had been different, do you think you'd be higher in the championship point standings right now?
"Absolutely. That's something that really has kept the team motivated. It seems like week-in, week-out we have very competitive race cars. We're capable of running top-10, top-15 every race. For whatever reason, we always seem to have some kind of problem within the last five or 10 laps. It's really stripped us of some very good finishes. Because of that, you run 10th, get into some kind of problems near the end of the race, you end up 30th, and of course the points are going to suffer. The biggest thing is we just have to be able to close the deal. We just need to get a little bit of luck on our side. We're confident everything will turn around for us."
You came from the United States Auto Club and were extremely successful in that series. How do you keep your spirits up, going from a situation where you're winning a lot to a situation where you're not quite as successful?
"It's very difficult. You have to realize that once you get to the level of the Nextel Cup Series, the competition is so fierce that obviously you only get 36 chances to win a race. The guys have so much experience - it's going to make it tough. Being a rookie, you allow yourself some compensation, but at the same time, my teammate Denny Hamlin has won two races. It definitely makes it tough. The biggest thing is you always have to keep your head up. You have to stay focused. If you let certain things that are out of your control affect you, then all of a sudden you're going to go to the race track with not enough confidence. I've been doing this long enough to know that you'll have good days and bad days. The biggest thing is you can't give up, because if you do, you'll never get the opportunity to get back to winning races."
As a rookie in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, you expect to be in a learning curve most of the year. Are you at all frustrated and did you expect more success at this point in the year?
"Well, it's easy to get frustrated, especially at this level. I guess more so because we've run really good and just not been able to get the finishes that we've deserved. You know, especially on the Busch side, I've come a lot closer than I have on the Cup side so far. For whatever reason, I can't seem to catch the right break that puts me in the situation to close the deal and go home with the trophy. Because we've been so competitive and the opportunities have been there, the only thing that you can do, especially as a driver, is to go out there and give a hundred percent every day. If you're capable of running top-five every week, you're going to put yourself in position to win a race. We'll just keep fighting for that opportunity and hopefully we'll close the deal here pretty soon."
At this point in the year, what does having a successful season mean to you? Does that mean winning?
"Even if I won a race right now, I still wouldn't call it a successful season. I learned last year in Busch that in order to run well in the points, especially at this level, you had to be consistent. You couldn't afford to have bad weekends. I know we had a streak there where we had seven or eight races where, for whatever reason, we had a bad finish, outside of the top-25. I think at that point we were 19th in points, and all of a sudden you lose 400 points and drop all the way back to almost 30th. It's so difficult to dig yourself out of a hole. It almost seems like the harder you try, the deeper you get. The main thing that we need to do for the final races is to make sure we don't have problems. Statistically, it looks horrible for us. As a team, we know we're competitive. We know we can get the job done. We just can't give up."
What does it feel like being a part of a rookie class that could very well be the best in the history of the sport? What is your relationship like with the other rookies?
"It's good being a part of this great rookie class. It makes you strive to perform maybe even a little bit more than you would any other way. All the drivers pretty much came from the Busch Series, so we all have a good relationship. On the race track, the rookie class probably races each other better than they're racing the veterans or anyone else, and that's because we spend more time racing each other. There's probably a lot more give-and-take than we get from some of the other guys. Because of that, it's almost more fun racing with them because you know you've got that competition in that you're racing for Rookie of the Year as well. We all race each other pretty clean."
With the success this rookie crop is having, does this sort of ruin it for future rookies in that there's no longer a learning curve? Does a rookie have to succeed right away, or is there still time for a rookie to mature?
"The level had been raised for rookies well before this season happened. If it was Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman, all the guys that have gone out as rookies have won races and been top-10 in points. It's just a matter of there being more good teams and more rookies getting better rides and better opportunities. Now because of that, they can go out there and win races. Before, a rookie didn't get to join a top-notch team, and if they did, they weren't getting the best equipment. Now, the equipment is there and the drivers are more than capable of getting the job done."
Are you finding yourself getting more respect week by week?
"It's definitely gotten better. I know all of us as rookies kind of saw some of that in the beginning - that we were expected to show a lot of respect to everyone else. But you race someone a certain way, you kind of expect it back. It might have taken longer than most of us expected, but it's definitely paid off now. I know the difference between the first five races to now, when you race somebody and you're definitely faster, you can race them pretty hard for a couple laps, then they'll let you go and give you some room. It's definitely made the races more enjoyable."
Can you point out the biggest challenge to being a rookie at the Nextel Cup level?
"The biggest thing is just trying to get used to some of these race tracks. Some race tracks are obviously a lot more difficult than others. Some of the Busch Series regulars don't get to race some of the race tracks the Cup cars get to go to. Most of the guys, especially the veterans, have been going there for 10-15 years. They know the race track like the back of their hand while we're still trying to figure out the proper line or some other characteristic of the race track. Just trying to get a feel for the race track is important. I know that as soon as we go to the race tracks we've been to for a second time, our car's a little bit closer. We can help the crew chiefs out a little bit more. We seem to all be able to perform a little bit better."
Other than the ability to race, what other qualities does a driver need to make the jump to the Nextel Cup Series?
"Two things, really. Communication is very, very important. You could be the greatest race car driver in the world, but if you can't convey to the crew chief what the car is doing, he can't fix it for you. Because of that, you're not going to go out and win races. Secondly, the biggest thing I've noticed making the transition is that racing is only 60 percent of the game. You spend a lot of time speaking in front of large groups of people, entertaining sponsors, things like that. You have to be able to present yourself very well because sponsors are paying so much money for these teams to go race. You have to go out there and give them value."
With all the drama surrounding driver-team relationships, how would you rate your relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing?
"We have a great relationship. I speak with J.D. (Gibbs, team president) quite often. I get along very well with Denny (Hamlin) and Tony (Stewart), my other two teammates, even on the Busch side. I know it's very important that for a team to be successful that you take advantage of all three teammates being able to communicate with each other. I think that's what has made Joe Gibbs Racing better than it has ever been before. There's a lot of communication between all three crew chiefs. It's something we've really strived to work hard on this year, and it's paying off for us pretty well."