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Friday, December 29, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: JJ Yeley

JJ Yeley Age 30
0 wins, 0 top 5’s, 3 top 10’s, 9 top 15’s
Avg start 21.2, avg finish 25.0
Points Rank: 29th Driver Rating: 66.5
#18 Interstate Batteries Chevy Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Why can’t you be more like your brothers? That must be how JJ Yeley feels when compared to his teammates. Yeley’s plight is similar to a younger sibling with two older brothers: a high school quarterback and a straight A student. Sure he struggled in his rookie year, but look who he is compared to. Denny Hamlin won two races and made the Chase in his rookie year. Tony Stewart has two Championships and won 5 races for the second straight year.

In other words, Yeley had an average rookie season, but is teammates with arguably the best driver in NASCAR, and the driver with one of the best rookie seasons ever. There is nothing wrong with being a normal rookie. Positives (three top 10's, nine top 15's) laced with negatives (7 DNF's) summarizes Yeley's season nicely. A further look shows Yeley’s point standing was 29th, but his composite driver rating was 25th. Like most drivers with ratings that outperform their points, the reason was wrecks. He had 17 total crashes, good for 7 DNF's and 16 sub-30 finishes. In a short time he has already acquired a reputation for wadding sheetmetal.

All rookies will find trouble with one or more veterans during a long year. For most of the season Yeley avoided this trouble. Unfortunately he made a rookie mistake at the worst possible time. During the October race at Charlotte, Yeley collided with Chase contender and popular veteran Mark Martin. The scary crash cost Martin a shot at his first title. Yeley took some heat over the incident, especially since it was his third straight DNF from a wreck. Despite all the frustrations and bad finishes, he still wasn't as bad as Jason Leffler.

Joking aside, Yeley has serious talent and a resume to match. His open wheel background is similar to Stewart’s. They are the only two drivers to win the USAC Triple Crown. Yeley also set a USAC record with 24 wins during the 2003 season, breaking AJ Foyt's record. Yeley obviously has talent and was personally recommended to Gibbs by Stewart.

There were several examples of Yeley's talent in 2006. He started 4th at California, ran in the top ten the entire day finishing 8th. It was also his highest rated race with a 91.9. In July he finished 10th, 12th and 11th in a three race span at Chicago, Loudon and Pocono respectively. Based on the season driver ratings, Yeley's average running position was 22nd. This was better than Reed Sorenson and right behind Martin Truex Jr and Clint Bowyer. He also finished fifth in the Busch series standings with nine top 5's and 22 top 10's.

Frequent crashes can make for a long season, but they aren't a barometer for a driver's career. Numerous young drivers have dealt with the same thing and grew out of it once experience caught up with talent. Kasey Kahne is the most recent example. Kahne has a similar sprint car background.

Yeley's biggest tool for improvement is seat time. For the second straight season, Yeley will run both full Cup and Busch schedules. This year he will drive in Busch in James Finch's #1 car. Any seat time is valuable for Yeley, but it could be beneficial in another way. Finch is not a top Busch team and it will require Yeley's skill and more importantly patience to succeed.

If you want an idea how Yeley might do, compare his rookie season to Brian Vickers'. Vickers showed speed at times, but also frequently crashed his top-flight equipment. He had four top tens compared to Yeley's three. Vickers settled down in his second year, had some good runs and showed overall improvement. For Yeley to get 7-9 top tens plus 1 or 2 top 5 finishes is reasonable.

Yeley is a very good qualifier. He had nine top ten starts in addition to three Busch poles. It wouldn't be surprising if Yeley won a Cup pole next year. Right now his best tracks are speedways like California, Texas and Chicago. Over time, places like Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix could fit his style well too.

At 30, Yeley is not a young gun like most of the 2006 rookies. Does that make 2007 more urgent? The good news is probably not. That is not Joe Gibbs' style. One of the strengths of Gibbs Racing is the continuity. Tony Stewart has had the same crew chief for almost a decade. Interstate Batteries is a part of that continuity and it's doubtful they will demand immediate results that other more high-profile sponsors might. That said, Yeley can't get too comfortable. Aric Almirola is driving for Gibbs in Busch in 2007. If things go well, he could be Cup-ready soon.

Progress will come on 2007, but accidents and mistakes will still temper the season. If Yeley smooths out the rough spots, he could jump up to the low 20's in points. Year three will be the real chance for Yeley to make a splash.

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