Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Front Row Motorsports driver JJ Yeley, who is one of two drivers (along with Tony Stewart) to win USAC's famed Triple Crown. We sat down with Yeley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
JJY: Uh...Matt Kenseth.
SBN: Why's that?
JJY: Well, because he's a guy who consistently gets the job done. Obviously, he's a past champion, but it doesn't seem like fan-wise and TV-wise that he carries the same weight that let's say Tony Stewart or the guys at the pinnacle of the sport do.
I don't know if it's just because he's laid-back or what, but for a guy who is one of the most consistent guys on the racetrack and handles himself well off it, he just doesn't get enough notoriety.
SBN: What's a race in your career you feel like you should have won, but didn't?
JJY: It would be the Kentucky (2006 Nationwide) race where I led probably 60 laps and had a huge lead, but had a caution with 30 to go and lost the race to David Gilliland. Looking back, there's obviously a lot of things I would change, but I was racing with Clint Bowyer, who was a lap down. He was racing really hard to get his lap back, moved me up the racetrack and let Gilliland get underneath me. And in doing that, the caution came out the next lap.
So then I didn't have the track position and was too tight. I had a dominant car and it looked like I had it in the bag, but I ended up running second.
SBN: Let's say you are going to be on a four-car Sprint Cup team and you can pick your teammates – but not anyone you're currently affiliated with. Who would you choose?
JJY: I think it would be fun to have Tony Stewart – he's a guy I've always followed and has been a good friend – Jimmie Johnson and probably Jeff Gordon. Obviously, that's kind of a Hendrick deal, but I'd base it more off what I could learn from those guys.
I feel like they all have three distinctively different driving styles and at the end of the day, they're all going to be up front and have a chance to win races, win championships. I think there are things there I could learn that would help me.
Plus, they'd be a lot of fun.
SBN: What driver did you want to emulate when you were young?
JJY: For me, watching as a kid, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the guy. He won races however he had to do it. It didn't matter whether it was wrecking a guy – obviously it didn't seem like that was his first option, because if he had the car to win, he wanted to race – but he did whatever it took.
It was really cool to watch him race and it would have been even more fun to be able to race against him. I think as a race car driver, you needed to model yourself after him.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport after a race?
JJY: (chuckles) There have been a lot of them. I'd say probably leaving a place like Watkins Glen was the most interesting. When I was at Gibbs, our IT guy's job on a Sunday was to map an escape route. It didn't matter if that was farm roads, dirt roads or not really a road. We had an aerial map and everything.
It seems like there's a big race after the race. You watch crew guys leave a racetrack, it gets pretty exciting. And they're obviously driving rental cars, which just adds fuel to the fire.
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
JJY: I'd like to meet Adam Sandler. He's one of my favorite comedians and he's a fun guy. I'd like to meet him and hang out for awhile.
SBN: In your opinion, are Sandler's movies these days still as good as his older ones?
JJY: I think because he's gotten older, he's had to change his humor a little bit. But they're still good.
SBN: Last year, Jamie McMurray won Daytona, the Brickyard and the fall Charlotte race but missed the Chase; Jeff Gordon didn't win any races but made the Chase and contended. Which would you rather have?
JJY: Well, it would all be about wins. Absolutely. Especially for Jamie, because the races he won were really big races. But at the end of the day, I'd definitely rather have wins because then you know you're good enough to get the job done. And then as a team, you figure out what you did wrong to miss the Chase. Because if you're good enough to win three or four races, you should be able to be competitive week-in and week-out.
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from?
JJY: Winning is something you can't buy. I've been lucky in my career to win a lot of races, and the feeling you get from being the best at the racetrack, there's no other way to duplicate it other than going and doing it.
Our sport is different than any other, because it's a driver and team against everyone instead of head-to-head against another team. So obviously, the odds are stacked against us and our winning percentages are always going to look bad. But there's no way and nothing you can do to duplicate the feeling of winning a race.
Plus, it's what pays the most money (laughs).
SBN: That doesn't hurt. How much does your personality change from standing here talking to when you're inside the car?
JJY: It really doesn't change a whole lot. I try to stay light all the time, because it keeps me from getting nervous. You go to some of the big races, and it's still easy to get butterflies. I guess that's why it's still exciting to do.
Obviously, my role has changed drastically to where I'm a go-or-go-home team and where I can't afford to have any kind of mistakes on qualifying day. Even talking with a veteran like Bill Elliott, with as many races as he's won, he said he hates the feeling of having to qualify and knowing that if he goes out there and makes a mistake, he's going home.
Fortunately it doesn't happen very often, but it's a horrible feeling knowing I don't get to participate on Sunday.
SBN: If you could take over the life of another athlete from a different sport, who would you want to be?
JJY: Probably a football player, because I don't think their schedules are nearly as bad as baseball players. Being Peyton Manning would be good. I've lived in Indianapolis for a long time, and obviously he's like a hero of this town. He's won Super Bowls and carried himself well, so I wouldn't mind being him.
SBN: And the money wouldn't hurt either.
JJY: But it's not all about the money.
SBN: No, of course not.
JJY: (laughs) But a lot of it has to do with money.
SBN: If you could take a year away from NASCAR and...
JJY: ...I did that. It sucks.
SBN: So you wouldn't do it again, I take it?
JJY: You know, in 2009 I ran one race and I got injured in a wreck. I didn't go to the track very often. It was painful, but it was good for me because almost recharged my batteries.
Going back to the question about why I want to win, this is something I've done my entire life. All I've done is race. And sitting down and not doing anything for six months because I physically couldn't, it really makes you wonder about the priorities in your life.
It really made me think more about the racing side of it versus the business side of it. Obviously, when you get to this level, the politics change, the business side of it changes and the racing becomes a smaller percentage of why we do it. So that year off really kind of let me refocus and get my values back to where they needed to be.
SBN: When your career ends at some point, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?
JJY: Obviously, I've been very successful at many different racing arenas before I got to NASCAR. I'd love to win a couple races while I'm here and let people know I've been here. The records I've set in USAC, most of them probably won't be broken.
But as far as the legacy, I really don't worry too much about it. I know I'm happy with the career I've had and I was successful and I'll move on with my life when racing is over. That'll be a new chapter to look forward to.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather have it clinched after Phoenix, or would you rather win it off Turn 4 of the last lap at Homestead?
JJY: Based off a lot of the wins I've had in my career, I'd probably rather win the championship off Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag. In some of the championships I've won, I've had both sides of it – I've had ones that have come down to the wire and ones where with five races to go, it didn't matter. There would just be a lot more excitement in doing it at the end.
And obviously, for my career, the publicity would be a lot bigger to do something like that. If I know the outcome, too, it would be more fun to make that last pass out of desperation to win the championship.