Sunday, April 16, 2023

CUP: J.J. Yeley’s long, hot afternoon in Martinsville ends with hard hit to Turn 3 wall


by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

J.J. Yeley scored the 21st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s NOCO 400 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #15 Isaacson Concrete & Excavating Ford was involved in a single-car crash after 337 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Yeley’s 358th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since September 26, 2021 at Las Vegas, 51 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 30th for the #15, the 645th from a crash, and the 729th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th for the #15, the 1,009th for Ford, and the 1,327th from a crash.

Saturday’s portion of action at the Bristol Dirt Race saw two feel-good stories by underdogs:  Norm Benning qualifying for the Truck Series race on the last lap of the final heat, and J.J. Yeley’s charge in the Cup heats. In the third of four heat races, Yeley sped to a 3rd-place finish, which secured him 3rd on the starting grid for the 150-lap main event. This was not only the best-ever Cup start for a Rick Ware Racing (RWR) entry, but the best Yeley had earned since November 11, 2007 at Phoenix, when he drove for Joe Gibbs. He went on to finish on the lead lap in 20th, easily his best showing of the entire year.

Since he was last the feature of a Cup Series LASTCAR article in 2021, Yeley has made all but one of his Cup starts with the Ware team. He first filled the gaps in the schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing’s reserve driver Ryan Preece – now the full-time driver of SHR’s #41 – and now between a mix of road course specialists and other one-off efforts for Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst. He’d also continue to welcome new sponsors to the sport, including Illinois-based Isaacson Concrete and Excavating, which backed his Martinsville run. This race would also come during a difficult time for the RWR team, following the arrests of driver Cody Ware regarding an alleged. With Ware's indefinite suspension from NASCAR, Zane Smith would pilot the #51 Biohaven Ford at Martinsville.

While Yeley’s strong run at the Bristol Dirt Track encouraged many to recognize his accomplishments as 2003’s USAC Triple Crown Champion, the FS1 graphics department nevertheless bungled Yeley’s graphic for practice at Martinsville. This resulted in Yeley being listed as “2009 F1 World Champion,” the caption left over from Jenson Button’s run in the #15 at COTA. Yeley turned 26 laps, but was slowest in the session. He remained slowest overall at the end of Qualifying Round 1B, taking the 36th and final spot on the grid with a lap of 91.598mph (20.673 seconds).

Sunday would see Yeley joined in the back by Joey Logano, whose #22 Verizon 5G Ford was found to have a leaking water tank on race morning. Logano surrendered the 15th starting spot, and at the end of Lap 1, remained in the last spot 5.129 seconds back of the leader and 0.122 bak of Ty Dillon in the #77 Nations Guard Chevrolet. Logano finally made it to 34th on Lap 3, putting Dillon back to last, and Yeley now battled Logano for the 35th position. Logano made it past by Lap 5, giving Dillon a look alongside Yeley, and the two were 0.031 second apart at the stripe. 

By Lap 7, Dillon had passed both Yeley and Anthony Alfredo in Live Fast Motorsports’ #78 Andy’s Frozen Custard Chevrolet. That time by, Yeley was in last, but still alongside 35th-place Alfredo by 0.064 second. Yeley dropped Alfredo to last on Lap 9, shortly before Austin Cindric lost positions after contact from Erik Jones sent Cindric’s #2 Menards / Libman Ford slipping back on the outside line. “Doing just fine,” Alfredo’s crew told him on Lap 18. “Nobody can pass, man."

Yeley's car being towed off the track after the crash.

On Lap 28, the leaders put Alfredo the first car one lap down. Alfredo’s spotter suggested following the leader after he was lapped, which would allow him to clear slower traffic ahead. This kept Alfredo in touch with then-leader Ryan Preece while 2nd-place Daniel Suarez closed in from behind. The long green-flag run continued, during which time Alfredo’s handling worsened. “We’ll get you some help here on the first stop,” they told him on Lap 36. This wouldn’t come until Lap 80, when the caution fell to conclude Stage 1. “Truly, it looked good compared to the other guys,” said Alfredo’s team. 

During caution-flag pit stops, Yeley took last from Alfredo on Lap 87, but Alfredo took it back just before the Lap 92 restart. Again, Alfredo passed Yeley on Lap 96, and Yeley lost a second lap to the leaders on Lap 127. The first close call of the day followed on Lap 133 as Erik Jones spun Harrison Burton’s #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford coming off Turn 2. Yeley pulled high and made it between Burton and the outside wall. 

Yeley’s #15 remained in the 36th spot for the remainder of Stage 2, which wore down both his right-rear tire, and the driver himself. Struggling with heat, Yeley said he had to regulate his breathing and had trouble retrieving the hose to his air conditioning. The crew discussed reaching through the window on the stop, but hesitated to drop the window net, and instead gave him a bag of ice. Yeley restarted the race on Lap 193 still in last place, two laps down, and was warned by his crew to “not make the tires mad” in what would likely be another long green-flag run. The race did grind onwards, during which time Yeley lost his third lap on the 222nd circuit. On Lap 235, Yeley reported a lack of forward bite. Around Lap 261, the team said “Stay tough here, less than 140 to go,” and said he had good acceleration off Turn 2.

The next last-place challenger was Zane Smith, Yeley’s teammate in the #51 Biohaven Ford. On Lap 267, Smith was in the midst of a long green-flag stop which perhaps stemmed from a loose left-front tie rod that occurred in the first 100 laps. The team also said they were having radio issues, and estimated the problem occurred after his microphone got wet. On Lap 273, having returned to the track in 35th on the same lap as Yeley, Smith radioed his team twice that he was “plowing tight.” 

Next came Alfredo’s return to last place on Lap 302, when the caution fell for a right-rear wheel that came loose from his Chevrolet, drawing a delayed caution from NASCAR. Alfredo returned to the track six laps down on Lap 305, then was instructed to serve his two-lap penalty soon after. Alfredo requested both water and a sports drink, but couldn’t receive either during his penalty as the crew wasn’t allowed to service the driver or car. He instead made another stop, and like Yeley explained his issues with heat. While his team helped him adjust his air conditioning so it no longer blew warm air, this did nothing to help his feet, which Alfredo said were “boiling” against the floorboard. With 88 to go, Alfredo took the green in last place, eight laps down. He’d lose a ninth with 62 to go.

Finally, with 56 laps to go, Yeley’s car veered straight at the entrance of Turn 3, leaving two tell-tale streaks of tire rubber into the outside wall. After a hard hit, Yeley climbed from the car under his own power. While the booth estimated it was either a cut tire or a brake issue, FS1 analyst Bobby Labonte remarked that it appeared to be a stuck throttle, a fact confirmed by Yeley over the radio. The caution took a full 11 laps to complete before Yeley’s car was towed back to the garage area, done for the day.

No one else fell out of the race, so Alfredo, Smith, Cindric, and Dillon completed the Bottom Five.

*Yeley’s 337 laps are the most completed by a last-place finisher of a 400-lap race Martinsville, and the ninth-most among Cup last-place finishers at the track. In fact, across all tracks it’s the 17th-most laps competed by the last-place finisher of a Cup Series points-paying race.

36) #15-J.J. Yeley / 337 laps / crash
35) #78-Anthony Alfredo / 390 laps / running
34) #51-Zane Smith / 395 laps / running
33) #2-Austin Cindric / 397 laps / running
32)  #77-Ty Dillon / 397 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Penske Racing, Spire Motorsports (2)
2nd) Kaulig Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Ford (3)


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