Phoenix II: JJ Yeley preview

J.J. YELEY There's No Place Like Home HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Nov. 8, 2006) - The American classic, The Wizard of Oz, coined the phrase, "There's no place like home." Main character Dorothy repeated it over and over before being returned to her ...

There's No Place Like Home

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Nov. 8, 2006) - The American classic, The Wizard of Oz, coined the phrase, "There's no place like home." Main character Dorothy repeated it over and over before being returned to her Kansas home after a wild adventure that turned out to be just a dream.

J.J. Yeley, driver of the No. 18 Boniva (ibandronate sodium) Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, might have an idea of how Dorothy felt. Competing full-time in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series was a dream come true for Yeley, with his wild adventure becoming a reality via the grueling, 36-race schedule that makes up NASCAR's premier series.

While the season isn't over, the penultimate race of Yeley's rookie year will bring the Phoenix native back home. The Checker Auto Parts 500k means seeing friends and family, a couple of trips to his favorite Mexican restaurant, and a return to a track where he once watched races as a kid before racing there as a man.

Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) is Yeley's home track. The 30-year-old has more experience at PIR than at any other track on the Nextel Cup schedule, despite Yeley being a Nextel Cup newbie.

Yeley made his mark at Phoenix in the prestigious Copper World Classic, where he scored back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2005 driving a USAC Midget. Those races were just two of the 11 United States Auto Club events Yeley has competed in at Phoenix, as the Gibbs driver has logged more laps in Midget and Silver Crown cars on the desert mile than in anything else.

But Yeley's history at Phoenix is not limited to USAC. He made his first IRL IndyCar Series start there in 1998, and with this weekend's slate of NASCAR action, he'll make his fifth career NASCAR Busch Series start and his second Nextel Cup start.

As the season winds down, Yeley has stepped it up. Thanks to consecutive top-20 finishes at Atlanta and Texas, Yeley has rallied from a rough, four-race stretch where his best finish was 29th. And now that he's back on his home turf, Yeley looks to put his experience to good use by taking his Boniva (ibandronate sodium) Chevrolet to a part of the track he knows especially well - victory lane.

When you were racing USAC Midgets in Phoenix and working your way up through the open-wheel ranks, did you ever think that you'd be coming to PIR finishing up your rookie season in Nextel Cup?

"When I was still racing Midgets and Sprint cars, I had people coming up to me saying that you are going to race in NASCAR and compete in the Nextel Cup Series. I've always been one of those people that worry more about what's going on at the time than looking toward the future. I never really gave it enough thought that I had a chance to make it to the Nextel Cup level. My dad raced for 25 years. We never had a lot of money. We always had to figure out a way to continue to race. The breaks that I've gotten to get this opportunity have made me try that much harder to succeed because it was so hard to get to this point."

You made your first Nextel Cup start at PIR back in April. Did you enjoy coming back home and racing in front of family and friends in a Nextel Cup car for the first time?

"Anytime you get to go home, it's special.  You see family and friends
that you haven't seen in a long time.  I was a little disappointed with
the race.  We went with a different style of race car than the other two
Joe Gibbs Racing teams did.  We ran into a couple of problems with some
parts that failed.  It made for a long and disappointing day in Phoenix."

Growing up in the Phoenix area, did you ever think that you'd be coming back to PIR in a stock car?

"No. I had watched plenty of races from the infield or even outside the race track in the suites at PIR. It's just kind of a dream come true to be able to come back to PIR - a place where I grew up - and compete in the Nextel Cup Series. When I go to Phoenix, I have a lot more fans than anywhere else that I get to go. I just hope we can turn things around so that we can have a competitive race and hopefully have a chance to win the race."

You made your first start in an Indy car at PIR back in March of 1998. What do you remember about that experience?

"It was just amazing. I got to do a test there and they were impressed with my ability. We struggled a little bit in practice and made a couple of changes. With the changes I qualified ninth and had a lot of fun. I didn't have a lot of pavement experience to begin with. It was just the difference between the aero-side of the Indy Car, which I wasn't used to. I put myself in a position where I got in an accident and it went downhill from there. I just chalked up my accident to inexperience."

You've been to victory lane at PIR in an open-wheel car. Do you feel like you have enough experience in a stock car to make it to victory lane there this weekend?

"I guess because I've been to victory lane there at PIR, I can think of nothing better than to go back and win there again. It's one of those places that you never get sick of going. I've had enough experience there now in a stock car to hopefully put myself in a position where I can win the race, as opposed to trying to learn the ins and outs of what it takes for a stock car to go fast around there versus the open wheel cars that I had been driving there before."

Are you planning on stopping by Manzanita Speedway - the half-mile dirt track near Phoenix where you first started racing and winning?

"I'd love to go watch a race at Manzanita Speedway, but I don't think I'd get cleared by Joe Gibbs Racing to compete there anymore. In my last two trips there we've had a little bit of bad luck and got into some accidents. I grew up as a little kid watching racing at Manzanita and PIR. As I got better and more mature and came up through the ranks of racing, I got to go and race and win at those race tracks. It's always great to go back to those places where you have so much knowledge and memories."

Now that you live in the Charlotte (N.C.) area, what do you miss most about living in Phoenix?

"I miss the Mexican food. There's a place that's called Taste of Mexico that used to be called Jalapeno's. It's about two miles from where my parents used to live. Every time I go to Phoenix, I make sure I make the trip there. I generally have Mexican food at least two times a day when I'm in Phoenix, because when I get back to Charlotte it's hard to find really good stuff."

Was it fun being in front of family in friends back in April in Phoenix, and were you surprised at how much attention you received for your first time back home in a Nextel Cup car?

"It was definitely pretty cool having the attention that I got for being the local guy. For all the times I raced in Phoenix, to know that I get to go back in the Nextel Cup Series is pretty special. I was surprised at how many people had gone to the souvenir trailer and had all of the apparel and really supported me. As a rookie driver coming into a series like the Nextel Cup Series, having those fans there to support you gives you that extra boost of confidence when you get to the race track."

Focusing on these last two races, what are you and the No. 18 team working on?

"At this point we really have nothing to lose. We need to just get good finishes. With these few races to go, PIR is one of those race tracks that I have the most experience at. We are going to go back in there with a different package that is something closer to what we are used to running and just try to build some momentum for the end of the year."

Now that your rookie season in Nextel Cup is coming to an end, what have you learned the most?

"It still comes down to patience, and learning who to race and who not to race, and when the right time is to race hard. These are things that I should have learned through the Busch Series, but these races are so long it's really hard to get used to that fact. I worked with the spotter a little bit to remind me how far along we are in the race. There's a point where you need to keep your head up and make sure you keep the car in good race shape so that in the last 50 laps you can start charging as opposed to getting yourself in trouble."

What lessons have you learned during your first season in Nextel Cup that you hope to bring with you in subsequent seasons? Was there a particular race that you were most proud of?

"There were so many races where bad luck bit me. I was really proud of the guys in Indianapolis. We had a great race car, qualified good, and ran up near the front the entire race. We got in a skirmish late in the race with a car that took us out of the hunt. Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I worked on the car the entire race. I guess that's something that I need to work on, especially the rookie side of it is making sure that every time we make a pit stop that we make the car better. That's where the veterans are really the strongest. They don't always start off the race very fast, but by the end of the race they have their cars handling very well. I'm learning what it's going to take to make a Cup car fast at the end of a race."

-credit: JGR

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