Gibbs removes Yeley from flagship car

Published 6:42 pm Tuesday, August 14, 2007

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE — J.J. Yeley may very well have a long and successful NASCAR career.
It just won’t be with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kyle Busch will be named the new driver for Gibbs’ flagship No. 18 on Tuesday, a hiring that knocks Yeley out of his ride after less than two seasons at NASCAR’s top level. It makes Yeley an unlikely free agent, as he wasn’t exactly terrible during his short time with the elite Gibbs team.
The former sprint car star showed steady improvement as he adjusted to stock cars. He’s polite, well-spoken and stays out of trouble on and off the track. And he’s so likable, Gibbs’ top officials are still praising him even as they push Yeley out the door.
Despite doing everything his team ever asked of him, Yeley is now looking for work because he’s a victim of bad timing and an unrealistic barometer for success.
Yeley started this second full season with one goal: To improve on his rookie year showing of 29th in the points.
He’s certainly done that, notching the first top-five finish at Charlotte in May. He won a pole at Michigan in June, and he’s currently 21st in the season standings.
But it wasn’t enough to save his job because, when your teammates are Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, anything short of running for wins makes you the weakest link.
Stewart, a two-time series champion, is a perennial title contender and a threat to win every weekend. Hamlin, who graduated to the Nextel Cup Series at the same time as Yeley, rocketed out of the gate and qualified for the Chase for the championship last year. He finished third in the standings last year and has been ranked No. 2 behind leader Jeff Gordon the past eight weeks.
Hamlin is proof that young drivers can have instant success in NASCAR. But he’s the exception, not the rule, and that success may have ultimately set Yeley up to fail.
And in a season where Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the hottest free agent in NASCAR history, setting off a string of dominoes that can topple even the most talented drivers, Yeley couldn’t afford to fail.
Yeley became expendable as Gibbs pursued Earnhardt, a chase the team ultimately lost to rival Hendrick Motorsports. But Earnhardt going to Hendrick pushed Busch into free agency, and Gibbs officials had no qualms settling for second prize.
The courting of Busch had to be easier than Earnhardt, and the plans that had been put together for Earnhardt could easily be shifted to Busch.
Yeley understands the game, and he knows it’s hard for any car owner to pass up the opportunity to sign a top name.
He accepted months ago that it would be difficult to hang onto his job — even as his team assured him he controlled his future in the No. 18.
Before this stint in the Nextel Cup Series, Yeley was accustomed to success. He was the youngest driver to receive a USAC license when he did it at 16 in 1992, and he became the youngest driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 when he did at 21 in 1998.
He broke A.J. Foyt’s record for USAC wins in a season with 24 (Foyt had 19) and he joined Stewart as the only drivers in USAC history to win its Triple Crown in 2003.
Yeley was in NASCAR the next year with a super team and a high probability of success. But it never happened as he was plagued with bad luck and never built on the consistency his teammates had — especially this season.
He opened the year with two strong finishes, but a dropped lug nut in Las Vegas ended what should have been a strong run. He was in the top 10 at Bristol until mechanical failure dropped him to 36th. A pit-road penalty and late spin sabotaged Martinsville, and he was wrecked the next week by David Ragan on the first lap in Texas — leading to a last-place finish.
His engine overheated at Talladega, a shock mount broke in Dover, he had a weak motor at the first Pocono, a missing lug nut in Indianapolis, and after struggling at Pocono two weeks ago, found out later he had a bad part on his car the entire race.
Those problems never seem to plague his teammates — at least not with the frequency it happens to Yeley — and that hasn’t been lost on him. When the issues continued to mount, he believes he was never given the personnel changes that maybe could have prevented future problems.