Yeley readies for Nextel debut

  By Jeff Birchfield
  star staff
  jbirchfield@starhq.com
  BRISTOL -- Only eight months after his first Busch Series race, rookie driver J.J. Yeley will race on NASCAR's grandest stage this Sunday.
   "This will be my first Nextel Cup race at Michigan," said Yeley during testing Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "We tested very well there and I am looking forward to my first race there."
   The newest driver in the Joe Gibbs racing stable hasn't been afraid to throw plenty of questions in the direction of teammates Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.
   "I'm not bothering them too bad," said Yeley with a chuckle. "Most of the places I've run, I've tested at. So when I go and race, I am not completely lost. I've got (Busch Series teammate) Mike Bliss on my side. Between Mike and Tony Stewart coming from USAC like I have from midgets to sprint cars to stock cars, their driving styles are similar to mine.
   "It's easy to go to those guys and get advice on something I need to ask for in a race car. At the same time, Bobby being a past Cup champion, you can't help but go ask what we thinks. He is a very, very intelligent race car driver on the set-up side of it. I have a lot of resources on my side."
   The transition to stock cars has been difficult at times, although no one questioned Yeley's ability. In 2003, he became only the second driver in history to win USAC's triple crown, winning championships in sprint cars, midgets and silver crown. The first was his mentor Stewart.
   Asked to grade his progress of racing with the heavier cars, Yeley, who also won USAC titles in 2001 and 2002 responded.
   "Here of late I would give myself a B," said the driver of the No. 18 Home Depot/Viagro Chevrolet in the Busch Series. "As a team, we've started to jell a lot with each other. We've been to the wind tunnel a couple of times and I think we are getting a better product for myself and Mike Bliss.
   "We were fighting to run 12th through 15th, where now we are leading laps and running in the top ten with a good shot of winning races."
   Under the plan assembled by the Gibbs organization, Yeley has still been driving different types of racing machines. While he loves racing the USAC cars in which he won a record 25 races last season, the Arizona native knows seat time is needed in full-bodied cars.
   "The hardest thing for me lately is that I've had a month and a half off from stock car racing," said Yeley. "I'm looking forward to getting back to it full-time. My schedule picks up here in the second half of the season."
   Yeley was at Bristol in preparation for the upcoming Food City 250. His last time on a concrete speedway in Tennessee was June at the Nashville Superspeedway, where Yeley started living up to the preseason hype surrounding him.
   "It was definitely a boost, although I would have rather won the race," said Yeley. "We ended up ninth, but that's the unfortunate part of leading the race when you get a late caution like that. Whatever you do everyone else is going to do the opposite.
   "We should have stayed out (of the pits) and we might have won the race. The good thing is that we led forty laps. We had the car to beat and we held off one of the bigger Cup guys that came to invade the Busch Series. We will build on that."
   Much is made annually of his former car owner Stewart wanting to one day return to the Indy 500. Like Stewart, Yeley has experience in this country's biggest open-wheel race, finishing ninth in 1998 as a 21 year-old rookie at Indianapolis.
   Unlike Stewart, Yeley doesn't view his career as incomplete without a triumphant return to that race.
   "At this point, I don't think about it like I did two or three years ago," said Yeley. "I made the 500, scored in the top ten and enjoyed it. What makes that race special is the history and the fans. That's what I liked, seeing 400,000 people that love auto racing.
   "At this point, if I never make it back to the Indy 500, it's fine with me. I'm more focused on getting to the Brickyard 400."
   Asked which event in American motorsports, he wants to win the most, Yeley gave a reply fitting a veteran stock car driver.
   "The Daytona 500 is the biggest win you can go out and get," said Yeley. "It would be neat to win the Brickyard 400 considering I have lived in Indiana quite a while. I have a lot of fans there, but if you want to win the granddaddy, you have to win the Daytona 500."
   With the Cup debut this weekend, speculation has run rampant that Yeley will be moved up to a third Joe Gibbs Cup team. That conflicted with earlier reports that many in the organization felt the open-wheel ace needed another year of seasoning in the Busch Series.
   Yeley offered his opinion on the subject, using an example of another recent sprint car standout.
   "There are different ways to look at it," said the 27 year-old. "It would be good for me to spend another year in the Busch Series. At the same time if I get the opportunity to go to the third Cup team, the advantages are you are not going to learn the bad habits you are in the Busch Series.
   "You are going to learn against the best. I don't think that can work against you. Kasey Kahne has proved that the most. I don't think he had two complete seasons of Busch under his belt, but he did a phenomenal job this season."
   One thing Yeley's veteran teammates better be prepared for is his competitive nature. Although he will be on the roster with two former Winston Cup champions, Yeley doesn't like taking a back seat to anyone. Team orders like those issued in Formula One racing are completely out of the question.
   "I don't think that would ever be the case," said Yeley. "It hasn't been so far in NASCAR. The car owners here want to win, they just don't want to see the drivers take each other out. As far as pulling over and letting someone else win, that will never happen."