J.J. Yeley picked up the 20th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #66 FatBoy Premium Ice Cream Toyota fell out with handling issues after 76 of 267 laps.
The finish, which came in Yeley’s 333rd series start, was his first of the season and first since October 25, 2020 at Texas, 40 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 54th for handling issues, the 64th for the #66, and the 171st for Toyota. Across all three of NASCAR’s top series, it was the 82nd for the #66, the 125th for handling problems, and the 365th for Toyota.
Yeley remains perhaps the most prolific of NASCAR’s journeyman drivers, running for multiple different teams and attempting at least one Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series race in 2021. He’s been particularly prolific in the XFINITY Series, where he’s most often driven for Rick Ware Racing in conjunction with Bobby Dotter’s SS-Green Light Racing. Despite starting just 11 of the season’s first 27 races, he’s earned a season-best 12th at Homestead and a pair of 13th-place finishes at Phoenix and Daytona. He also earned a 14th in a one-off for Our Motorsports at Dover.
Heading into Las Vegas, Yeley welcomed new backing from social media platform Parler, and had an ECR engine under the hood of the Ware / Dotter #17 Chevrolet. In the early laps, Yeley charged from 33rd on the grid into the Top 10, only to be eliminated in a grinding 12-car pileup that left him 37th. Six tires from DGM Racing’s Alex Labbe, also involved in the crash, would ultimately be acquired by Carl Long, owner of Motorsports Business Management, who would field Yeley a Cup ride on Sunday in the #66. The standard black rims were distinguishable by decals bearing the three DGM team numbers.
Carl Long discussed the tires on Sunday. “Most of the time I'm able to get some (tires) from Gibbs or some of the rest of the big teams, but last night's race everybody used up about everything they had. And the first crash that went out, B.J. McLeod and Rick Ware scuffed up everything - they had deals with those teams, and nobody would help me (laughs).”
According to MBM crewman @WookieAutomoTV, Yeley would drive one of MBM’s newest Cup cars – chassis JGR 685 – which Long had purchased at the end of 2020. Chad Finchum had driven the car at Nashville, where the driver pinpointed what seemed to be a steering box issue. The box was replaced after Finchum dropped out just past half distance into the race. At Vegas, the #66 would be sponsored by FatBoy Premium Ice Cream, which debuted with Yeley in last fall’s Cup race at Texas, where he finished last after an early crash.
Yeley secured the 38th and final starting spot in the field, and on Sunday would incur a redundant tail-end penalty following three pre-race inspection failures. Three other drivers failed inspection twice, and would also be sent to the rear – 3rd-place William Byron in the #24 Axalta / Service King Chevrolet, 4th-place Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, and 17th-place Aric Almirola in the #10 Mobil 1 Ford. All three passed on their third go-round while Yeley did not, meaning the #66’s car chief was ejected and the driver would have to serve a pass-through penalty after taking the green flag.
When the race started, Yeley was holding the outside lane and drew ahead of both 35th-place Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet and 37th-place Joey Gase in the #15 NV Donate Life Chevrolet, who represented half of Rick Ware Racing’s four-car lineup. This put Gase in last place until Yeley came down pit road for the pass-through. Yeley returned to the track just in front of Gase, who reported what he believed to be a broken shock. “Feels like something’s broke,” he reported on Lap 5. After a rough run though Turn 4, Gase was told to come in so the crew could look under the hood. This was done on Lap 10, and Gase took over the 38th spot from Yeley when he returned to the track on Lap 12. At the same time, Yeley was lapped a second time, but remained in 37th.
|Yeley in the garage.|
NASCAR threw their competition caution on Lap 25, when Gase made a second stop with the other lapped drivers. This time, they didn’t look under the hood. He remained in 38th on the Lap 30 restart, when he started ahead of a few other cars. All these cars passed him by the end of that first lap, and the #15 once again trailed by at least two carlengths. On Lap 44, Gase was within sight of 37th-place Yeley, a margin that continued to shrink as the leaders lapped them both in the tri-oval. When Stage 1 ended on Lap 81, Gase had dropped 7 laps down, but was now one lap behind Yeley.
As it turned out, Yeley had pulled into the garage around Lap 80, and pulled into Stall 52 in the Neon Garage – the last stall on the side facing Turns 1 and 2. NASCAR relayed “66 to the garage, mechanical” on Lap 82, and Gase dropped the #66 to last under the stage-ending caution. Long spent some time talking with Yeley while one MBM crew member wiggled the right-front wheel by hand. Soon after, the team took off the DGM tires and put on a set of stickers with MBM logos on them. By then, it was Lap 90, and Long had just confirmed they were out of the race. He spoke to me about what had happened:
“We believe it's a wheel bearing that is going out,” said Long. "The car just gets a bad vibration in it. J.J. can't drive it in the corner. It's not consistent. It won't just push or it won't get loose. It will start to push, it will snap loose. The steering has moved on him.”
He discussed the Nashville issue that Chad Finchum discovered with the car. “So we had this problem at Nashville with this car, and we diagnosed it as a steering box. And so we put a new steering box in it, but this is a set of spindles that we couldn't find bearings that fit anymore. So we had a machine company make us an adapter to go over the spindle so it would fit our hubs and bearings, and that's got to be what the problem is. He can't feel the steering - I mean when it goes in, it's kind of towing out, it's washing around. It's not safe to be out there during the Chase.”
Although the spindle adapter was the cited cause, NASCAR listed the #66 out with “handling” issues. Yeley stayed for at least a half-hour after climbing from the machine, tossing sample ice cream sandwiches to the fans watching from the second floor of the Neon Garage.
Not long after our interview, on Lap 93, the day’s most serious accident occurred. Joey Gase, now running 37th, was again trailing the field on the Lap 88 restart. Heading through Turns 1 and 2, something failed in the left-rear of his car, causing the left-rear wheel to come off at high speed. The rear of Gase’s car stepped out, shedding at least two pieces of debris that smashed the lens of NBCSN’s Turn 2 camera. A moment later, the left-rear of the #15 backed into the wall hard enough to ramp the driver’s side off the ground. The car landed on its three remaining wheels and hit the inside wall several hundred feet from where his loose wheel had stopped against the barrier. Gase did not drop the window net, but when the safety crew dropped it, he was seen moving and throwing the steering wheel onto the dash. After a trip to the infield care center, Gase was then transferred to a local hospital for further evaluation.
As of this writing, there is no further official word on Gase’s condition from either NASCAR or Rick Ware Racing. NASCAR also has no additional information on the left-front wheel issue that caused the accident.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting, Gase's PR reported he has been released from the hospital and will be further evaluated in Charlotte.
The rest of the race was run without incident, and no other drivers joined Yeley and Gase in the garage area. Josh Bilicki in 36th finished 15 laps down to race winner Denny Hamlin in his #52 Byrna “The Un-Gun” Ford, Two laps ahead of him came the last of the RWR contingent, Garrett Smithley, in the #53 Red Line Chevrolet. Quin Houff round out the group in 34th, one lap ahead of Smithley in the #00 Eagle Rock Wealth Chevrolet.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #66 since March 14th of this year, when Timmy Hill’s run at Phoenix ended with engine trouble after 15 laps. It is also the third last-place run for the #66 in a Cup race at Vegas, following Joey Gase (March 3, 2019) and Timmy Hill (February 23, 2020), both in MBM cars.
*The #66 is also the 10th different car number with which Yeley has finished last in Cup, joined by the 18, 23, 27, 36, 46, 49, 51, 55, and 93.
*This marked Yeley’s first last-place finish in a Cup race at Las Vegas since March 11, 2012, when his #49 America-Israel Racing Toyota had engine trouble after 39 laps.
*Sunday marked the first Cup Series last-place finish by reason of handling issues at Las Vegas, and the first in the series since November 8, 2020, when Quin Houff turned 149 laps of the season finale at Phoenix.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #66-J.J. Yeley / 76 laps / handling
37) #15-Joey Gase / 84 laps / crash
36) #52-Josh Bilicki / 252 laps / running
35) #53-Garrett Smithley / 254 laps / running
34) #00-Quin Houff / 255 laps / running
2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Rick Ware Racing (5)
2nd) JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (4)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Spire Motorsports (3)
4th) Front Row Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
5th) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, StarCom Racing (1)
2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Ford (10)
3rd) Toyota (4)
2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP