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J.J. YELEY What a Difference a Year Makes HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 21, 2007) -- A year ago this week J.J. Yeley -- a rookie pilot in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series -- was reeling from a 40th-place finish in the Daytona 500 after being...

What a Difference a Year Makes

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 21, 2007) -- A year ago this week J.J. Yeley -- a rookie pilot in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series -- was reeling from a 40th-place finish in the Daytona 500 after being clipped from behind by another car during an incident on lap 80. Yeley left the season-opening race 41st in the championship standings.

Flash forward to the same week in 2007 where Yeley -- in his sophomore year as driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing -- is coming off his best career finish at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway with a solid 12th-place result after avoiding four big accidents in Sunday's Daytona 500.

After qualifying day penalties were calculated for two drivers that finished ahead of Yeley in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl -- Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne -- Yeley suddenly finds himself sitting 10th in the Nextel Cup point standings. In addition, two drivers who sit ahead of him in points -- Mark Martin and Mike Wallace -- are not expected to compete in the entire 36-race schedule.

Unlike a tough 2006 season, Yeley has jumpstarted 2007 via his finish at Daytona. With the instincts and good fortune to sneak by each and every pitfall during the final, crash-marred 50 laps of last Sunday's race, Yeley hopes his good luck will stay with him throughout the year.

Even better news for Yeley is a trip to California Speedway, where he posted a career-best eighth-place finish in last year's Auto Club 500 -- a result Yeley matched seven months later at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Yeley wants the good fortune and momentum built throughout Daytona Speedweeks to stay with him and the Interstate Batteries team through California and the subsequent races on the marathon-like Nextel Cup schedule. Compared to their fortunes of one year ago, Yeley and Co. are well on their way to achieving that goal.

After being able to dodge four wrecks in Sunday's Daytona 500, do you feel your luck has turned around from last year?

"Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug. It seemed like every time last year when there was an accident-- regardless of the circumstances -- I got caught up in it somewhere or somehow. I just feel fortunate to have dodged all of the big ones, considering all four big accidents happened right in front of me during the Daytona 500. Hopefully, that is a sign of things to come for 2007. Last year I hung around the back and tried to stay out of trouble, and during one of the big accidents I thought I was able to sneak through, but I ended up getting wrecked from behind. That kind of set the precedent for the entire season. This year we have a little bit of luck and just a little bit of momentum for me and the team that we can carry to California and beyond."

How does it feel to be heading into the second race of the season among the top-10 in points?

"Going into what I consider the real first real race of the season, we are not starting from a hole. Last year we wrecked out early and finished 40th at Daytona, so going into California last year, we were already worried about moving up to a decent spot in the points. I guess that's something that I look back on last year. I was always so far behind that I felt desperate to race hard and make up points. Some weeks it worked and some weeks it got us farther behind. Going into California this year in the top-10 in points, if you're consistent week-in and week-out, you can maintain that position in points and you can also slowly start creeping yourself up toward the number one position."

Since you made your Nextel Cup debut at California Speedway in 2004, is that track special to you?

"For me I enjoy California Speedway, but not just because it's where I made my Cup debut. The majority of my career I raced sprint cars in California. There are a lot of fans that come and see me there that have seen me race in open-wheel cars, so I guess that makes it special. I did have my Nextel Cup debut there and qualified very well, but the day didn't go well for me. It's a fun race track with a lot of character to it. I'm looking forward to going there and hopefully logging a top-10 to keep that momentum from Daytona going."

Since California Speedway is not a restrictor plate track and you don't need a drafting partner to help you move forward like you do at Daytona, are you happy to be headed to a venue where you have more control of your own destiny?

"It will be interesting going back to California. It seems like every time we go back there, the race track has more character and more bumps. It will be interesting to see how much rougher it is this year than it was last year. It always adds a little excitement to the race track. For me, last year the outside groove seemed to be the smoothest once there was enough rubber up there. It was the groove of choice for me. I always like the race tracks where you can choose a line as opposed to just having to follow guys along the bottom."

Before the season you tested at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Are there things that you can apply from your recent test at Las Vegas to this weekend's event?

"You can just see some of changes you've made in some of the intermediate track packages as far as downforce and the ability to turn. When we go back to Vegas, we'll be going back with a different tire and completely different package. The Vegas test was pretty much thrown out the window for anything we can take back there. You can still learn some things about the car, but the characteristics can still carry over to California."

You're a former open-wheel racer. Do you think NASCAR fans are more accepting of drivers that are from different racing backgrounds?

"I think so. NASCAR has changed so much in the last five years because you don't have as many of the good ol' Southern boys as you used to. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, me -- we all come from the West Coast and from so many different racing series. It's a matter of the best drivers wanting to come to NASCAR to show their talents, and it's more accepted that an Indy car guy can come here and give it a shot. So I'm thankful for that and I know a lot of the other drivers are too. We just want to prove ourselves on the race track."

Has it taken a little bit longer than you thought to adjust from sprint cars to Busch Series cars and then to Nextel Cup cars?

"Not really. Driving sprint cars and midgets is easier because you can take a car that's not handling and change your groove on a race track and possibly win the race. It's really difficult to do that in stock car. It's all about really working with the crew chief and with every pit stop to make your car better. You don't have those opportunities at a race with only 30 laps. You have to drive the wheels off the best you can. That's been something that's been a little more difficult for me -- telling Steve Addington (crew chief) how far to go on changes and maybe sometimes going too far just to make sure at the end of the race we're where we need to be. It seems like any time you get behind, it takes too long to catch back up. If you lose that track position, it's so critical to get it back. Sometimes you have to take chances to get it back and sometimes you don't get the calls or the cautions you need to get it, so it's just about trying to make the right changes at the right times."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Elliott Sadler , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing