The Chili Bowl Midget Nationals is always a fine time to remind everyone just who JJ Yeley is.
If you only watch the NASCAR Cup Series, you know Yeley as a guy that got a shot to drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 when Bobby Labonte departed but just didn’t immediately have the run of success expected from that organization.
From there, he has been a journeyman who usually races out of the other side of the garage, which is not a reflection of the natural talent level and resume.
Before all of that, Yeley was one of the absolute most accomplished racers in the history of USAC open-wheel dirt racing with numerous records that still stand two decades later.
He even had a brief Indy Racing League stint in 1998 that gave his the first little bit of mainstream exposure.
Consider that Yeley accomplished something in 2003 that only Tony Stewart had done in winning all three USAC championships in a single season. His record 24 wins across Sprint Cars, Midgets and Champ Cars still holds true.
Logan Seavey for example won two of the three championships, in addition to Chili Bowl and a USAC 4-Crown Nationals sweep, and it’s considered one of the best seasons in recent memory. Yeley blew that season out of the water.
In a different racing climate, Yeley would be looked at like Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell. And to that point, Gibbs signed Yeley expecting another Tony Stewart but the success didn’t immediately come and Yeley only got two Cup seasons before the organization moved on.
“It was a tough transition no matter what because I was a little bit older and obviously my pavement experience was very limited when I became a NASCAR driver,” Yeley said of his age 29 and 30 seasons. “I had a lot of success in the Busch Series but it was a big ask to jump to Cup when I had just started to figure out the nuances of a Stock Car.
“Not having three or four years to have that opportunity, made it tough.”
Yeley said his post-Gibbs career was a ‘fight for my life,’ just to continue making a living driving race cars.
“It was a very humbling experience and I was so grateful just to be given that opportunity but in hindsight, I should have spoken up more. I didn’t fight to find something that was a better fit.
“Looking back, Denny (Hamlin) went through five or six different crew chiefs, in Busch and Cup, pushing for ways to make him better. I was so content and happy to just be there, that it was probably shame on me for not forcing them to find something that might have been a better fit or would have helped me learn.”
Again, in a different climate, a guy like Yeley would be in huge demand to drive a winged car in either World of Outlaws or High Limit Racing. He could make a decent living racing USAC like a Justin Grant, Kody Swanson or Thomas Meseraull.
Every USAC race airs on FloRacing and has a good mainstream following and winged racing is really exploding in popularity.
But for Yeley, in the late 2000s, he had already won all the championships and most of the prestigious races so how could he say no to an ABC program with Gibbs?
He has no regrets.
“No, none at all because when I left USAC to go do NASCAR, I had already accomplished everything I could, you know what I mean,” he said. “I still have all those records, 20 years later, but it doesn’t do me any good. It doesn’t pay the bills or buy me coffee or Chipotle.
“That era where I was so successful, social media wasn’t a thing and everything I did just didn’t receive the attention the kids today get. People had to wait for Speed Sport News to come in the mail.”
Yeley gets to channel that period of his life every offseason though.
He is very hands on with his Chili Bowl program, builds his own cars, and is the crew chief of his own program even if he surrounds himself with great chassis builders like a Flea Ruzic. And because Yeley has made a good living driving NASCAR over the past 20 years, it allows him to go play in Tulsa and occasional make some noise too.
“Being a part of Flea’s program is super helpful because I come in and run two or three races against kids that run like 50 a year but he doesn’t race as much as everyone else here either,” Yeley said. “And Midgets are finicky man. Practice, we spent all day trying to figure out why I dropped a cylinder. We changed plug wires, plugs and trying to chase engine gremlins.”
He then was involved in two crashes in his prelim night on Thursday. It goes that way sometimes in Chili Bowl but this is his idea of a good time, tinkering with a car, and just racing purely for the fun of it.
And fun is what Yeley hopes to have more of next season on the NASCAR side. He will not be back in Cup with Rick Ware Racing and will instead be in the Xfinity Series with a program that he believes will allow him to challenge for the occasional top-10.
That might not sound like much, but that’s the closet Yeley will have been to the front in a long time and that gives him a lot of excitement.
“I don’t have to be a Cup Series driver to make myself feel good or accomplished or anything,” Yeley said. “I just want to go to the race track, compete and feel competitive and get the most out of whatever the equipment is.
“If that’s a solid top-10, I want to be in that position. To be more competitive has a price tag. I want to be in that position more but you have to have the resources and money and it’s very tough because there is so much money being spent in motorsports right now.”
Yeley is also excited to race a platform that has a lot of excitement around it right now after only making four starts there in 2023.
“You can make up for the equipment more in that series, aero wise in ways that you just can’t in the Cup Series with how aero dependent they are,” he said. “There are going to be tracks that with my experience, I really feel like I can make a difference and be competitive at.
“At this stage of my career, I wouldn’t do it unless I felt that way.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.