Monday, December 14, 2009

J.J. Yeley

Christopher Beltram Hernandez Yeley was born on October 5, of 1976; he is originally from Phoenix, Arizona, but now resides in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife Kristen and their daughter Faith.

The son of seven-time Arizona Midget Racing Association and two-time World of Outlaws midget champion “Cactus” Jack Yeley, J.J. attended his first race at three weeks old and spent most of his childhood traveling throughout the West Coast and Midwest with his father. “When I was probably seven or eight years old, my parents would drop me off in the grandstands,” said J.J. “I had to learn how to count money at a young age so I could buy something if I needed to. I’d go up in the grandstands by myself and maybe find some other kids to play with, watch the races, and make my way back down to the pit area afterward. I’d just find some local boy in the grandstands, sit and talk with him and tell him my dad was a racer.”

“As a kid, even being 12 years old, I remember going to the race track and sneaking in the pit area. I’d groove race tires and do things that you saw adults doing because I’d been doing it so long with my dad. Even though I was a kid, working on race cars was something I did well even at a very young age.”

That theme of accomplishing goals that were far beyond his age has prevailed throughout Yeley’s life. The Phoenix native began his racing career at age 10, where he competed in the Arizona Quarter Midget Racing Association. With help from a forged birth certificate, Yeley was able to start racing midgets at age 14. When he turned 16, Yeley became the youngest driver ever to receive a United States Auto Club (USAC) license.

After collecting his first win in 1995 in a non-wing sprint car at Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico, Calif., and becoming the youngest driver in Sprint Car Racing Association (SCRA) history to do so, he continued his winning ways in SCRA in 1996 and as a USAC rookie in 1997.

In 1998, Yeley competed in four Indy Racing League (IRL) races, including the Indianapolis 500. His one top-10 finish in these four races was at Indianapolis, where he finished 9th despite a spin on the first turn of the first lap, which nearly collected eventual race winner Eddie Cheever, Jr.

Funding didn’t materialize to continue racing in the IRL, so he focused on his budding USAC career. That focus paid off as Yeley won his first USAC Sprint Car Series championship in 2001.

Yeley followed up his USAC Sprint Car championship with a USAC Silver Crown championship in 2002.

Yeley scored 24 USAC wins in his 2003 season, breaking the previous record of 19 set by A.J. Foyt in 1961 and later tied by Sleepy Tripp (1988) and Jay Drake (2000).

Yeley became only the second driver in USAC history to win the “Triple Crown” by capturing the Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown championships in a single season, joining JGR teammate Tony Stewart as the only other driver to accomplish that feat (1995).

Yeley signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, starting 17 of 34 races in the 2004 NASCAR Busch (Nationwide) Series and achieving four top-10 finishes. In that year, he also made two starts in the NEXTEL (Sprint) Cup #11 car and competed in the IROC series.

Yeley drove the full season in 2005 in the NASCAR Busch (Nationwide) Series in the Gibbs' #18 car, posting twelve top-ten finishes and ending the season 11th in points. The biggest break of Yeley's career came in 2005 at Chicagoland Speedway. During a Sprint Cup practice session, JGR teammate Stewart became injured after crashing his primary car in practice, and on very short notice, Yeley was called upon to resume practice and qualify the No. 20 team’s backup car. Not only did he practice the car and qualify a very respectable 13th, he also showed everyone at JGR that he was ready to take on the challenge of NASCAR’s top series. As a result, in November 2005 Yeley was selected to drive the #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet full-time beginning with the 2006 Sprint Cup season.

Yeley ran full seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing in both the NEXTEL (Sprint) Cup and Busch (Nationwide) Series in 2006. He drove the #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet in the NEXTEL (Sprint) Cup series, and the #18 Vigoro/Home Depot Chevrolet in the Busch (Nationwide) Series. Yeley's best NEXTEL (Sprint) Cup finishes of 2006 came at California Speedway and Loudon N.H, where he finished 8th; his best Busch (Nationwide) Series finish came on June 17 at Kentucky Speedway. Yeley finished his 2006 season fifth in the Busch (Nationwide) Series point’s standings with three poles, nine top-fives, and 22 top-10s.

His 2007 was filled with rumors about being released from Joe Gibbs racing. At the 2007 Coca-Cola 600, Yeley scored a career high second place finish on a fuel gamble, with Casey Mears actually scoring the victory. Exactly three weeks later, at Michigan, Yeley took his first career pole at the NEXTEL (Sprint) Cup level, beating Jimmie Johnson by one/one thousandths of a second (.001). During the middle of the 2007 season Joe Gibbs announced that his team would be switching to Toyota in 2008. Gibbs also announced that Yeley would not return for 2008. Gibbs ended up signing Kyle Busch to drive the #18.

Yeley moved to Hall of Fame Racing in 2008, an affiliate of JGR, replacing Tony Raines in the #96 DLP Toyota. His struggles continued, as the team fell from being in the top 35 every week with Raines behind the wheel to struggling to make races on a weekly basis, the team's first DNQ came with Yeley behind the wheel. On July 5, he performed an in-race switch into the #20 car for an ill Tony Stewart at the July race at Daytona. He ran strong for most of the race but was collected in two crashes within the last five laps and ended up with a respectable 20th place finish. On August 6, 2008, Yeley was released from his contract to drive for Hall of Fame Racing, first by being replaced by P.J. Jones at Watkins Glen, Nationwide Series driver and Hall of Fame Racing test driver Brad Coleman at Michigan, and Ken Schrader for the remaining races. Yeley spent the rest of the season out of a ride.

In 2009, he moved to the Camping World Truck Series, driving the #65 Chevrolet Silverado for Joey Sonntag and Ron Crosby. He was also named to take over the Mayfield Motorsports #41 entry effective immediately following the indefinite suspension of owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield due to a substance abuse violation on May 9, 2009.

This past August the Sprint Bandit car he was racing at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas, tumbled at least eight times. Although he felt ok other than a sore neck, Yeley found out he had actually fractured three cervical vertebrae in his neck. “For the most part it was a typical Sprint Car type of accident,” Yeley recalls. “It was actually the third restart from cars that had already flipped. I just went in the corner by myself, caught a rut, the car bicycled and started flipping off the left side of the cage. It did a good amount of barrel rolls, probably close to eight or 10.

It was predicted that Yeley would be cleared to race as of this month, but no word has came yet as if he has or not.

In addition to racing, Yeley puts a lot of time and energy into charity work. Thanks in part to being the parent of a one-year-old daughter; Yeley has developed a soft spot for children’s charities.

In addition to participating in several fund raising opportunities for the Victory Junction Gang Camp and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Yeley hosted the first ever “J.J Yeley No. 18 Drives for Kids” golf classic in his hometown of Phoenix in March of 2007. The PIR hosted golf classic is designed to give back to the local community with all proceeds from the tournament going to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.