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Yeley is a veteran of the sport with over 350 starts at the Cup level since 2004 and almost 400 starts in the Xfinity Series as well.
Although he first arrived on the scene as a young gun at Joe Gibbs Racing, he struggled for results and was ultimately replaced. The journeyman driver has piloted cars for a dozen different Cup Series organizations since then.
His career results may be unremarkable, but Yeley is not without skill. He’s proven that on dirt countless times with several USAC championships to his credit including the coveted ‘Triple Crown’ in 2003.
The NASCAR Cup Series visits dirt once per year, and it is not an opportunity Yeley intends to squander.
The 46-year old charged from ninth to third in his heat race, earning himself enough passing points to be lining up third on the grid Sunday.
It is Yeley’s best starting position for a Cup race in nearly 16 years, dating back to June of 2007 when he earned the pole at Michigan while still a JGR driver.
JJ Yeley, Rick Ware Racing, Jacob Companies Ford Mustang
Photo by: David Rosenblum / NKP / Motorsport Images
With an average starting position of 32nd throughout his career, the performance certainly turned heads. It was a pleasant surprise for the race team as well. A Rick Ware Racing driver has never qualified higher than ninth for a Cup race in the team’s history. Yeley was also the highest-qualifying Ford driver in the field, beating the likes of Penske and Stewart-Haas.
“That went well,” said Yeley after his heat race. “We obviously didn’t know what to expect. I tried to roll the bottom on our first two little hot laps, just judging off the previous heat race the car didn’t feel very good, so I’m a dirt guy by nature and I knew all of those guys were gonna fight for the bottom, so I said, ‘the heck with it,’ I was gonna go to the top and the car handled really, really good up there. It took me a couple of laps to get into a rhythm. It felt like I might have been just a little bit better than the leaders once we got into third, and then I started overdriving and it just takes one little mistake to give up everything that you gained.”
Clashing with Hamlin
Yeley is a reliable driver who is rarely mentioned, quietly bringing his car home in one piece. However, that wasn’t quite the case last Sunday at Richmond. He made the headlines after a run-in with Cup Series star — and his former teammate at JGR, Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin sent Yeley spinning rear-first into the wall during the first stage in an incident that had FOX commentators wondering if it was intentional. Hamlin later apologized for the incident on his weekly podcast, and claims there was no intent. Although he had the chance to show his displeasure with Hamlin during the remainder of the race, a frustrated Yeley instead chose to keep focused on trying to get the best result possible with the hand he was dealt.
Most weekends, that’s a finish between 25th and 35th. But the uniqueness of the Bristol Dirt event is one that plays to his strengths, and requires a skillset that remains foreign to many of the usual stars of the NASCAR Cup Series.
It’s a race Yeley always looks forward, saying he “absolutely” has it circled on his calendar. Although he ran decent in 2022 before a late-race incident, he believes he and the No. 15 RWR team can be even stronger this time around.
“Last year, we had a really fast race car and got caught up in someone’s wreck with about 30 to go and felt like we had a top 10 car then. We have more resources here at Rick Ware Racing than we did last year. Obviously, the Ford horsepower was phenomenal. I can’t thank Public Square enough for coming on board and being a sponsor this week, so all of the things are kind of aligning and hopefully we’ll have a nice, smooth race tomorrow and we’ll be there at the end to where we can try to capitalize.”