NEWTON, Iowa — It may have been unheralded in the final rundown, but J.J. Yeley’s sixth-place effort in Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway may have carried the most emotion of any finish in the entire field.
On second thought, put race winner Ryan Preece’s victory in there right alongside the wily veteran.
But while Preece had tears of joy streaming down his face in victory lane, after gambling on two races this season with Joe Gibbs Racing that resulted in a runner-up at Loudon and Saturday’s win in Iowa, Yeley breathed a sigh of relief after climbing from his No. 14 TriStar Motorsports Toyota.
The unsponsored, flat black race car was beaten and battered, but showcased the heart and spirit of a team fighting against all the odds.
Yeley’s top-10 effort came exactly one week after the passing of TriStar founder Mark Smith, who lost his lengthy battle with cancer last Saturday.
That meant that the performance — and the result — carried immense pride within the team, not to mention that it was Yeley’s best finish of the season and his highest XFINITY finish since joining TriStar Motorsports.
“It means a ton,” Yeley said after the race. “There’s nothing on this car and when we run it plain black like this we actually call it ‘Black Betty.’”
“Obviously with what happened with Mark (Smith, team owner) passing away earlier this week … we wanted to just go at it with all of our guns blazing, and we had a great car that could run top-15 pretty much the whole race.”
Yeley kept his machine out of trouble for the entirety of Saturday’s race, but was mired outside of the top 10 for most of the 250-lap distance.
However, a last minute decision to make a late-race pit stop for slightly newer tires than the rest of the field — combined with squeaking through a late-race accident with four laps left, when Matt Tifft spun while battling for fifth with Brennan Poole and collected Ty Majeski and Dylan Lupton — made all the difference.
Those two factors allowed Yeley to pounce and led to the uplifting finish.
“When we started to come in there … we had some 30-lap scuffs and I made the last second decision to pit and put them on and go for it,” Yeley explained. “Then I just got lucky, being on the outside there on those last restarts.”
Did he have some help from upstairs?
If you ask the driver, he believes he did.
“I think Mark (Smith) was watching from up above and he helped me get by that 19 (Tifft) car when it started to spin … and we came away with sixth. I think I could’ve run a little bit harder, but I wanted to make sure that we could take what we could get.”
What Yeley got was the 46th top-10 finish of his XFINITY career, as well as a huge boost in the points standings.
Combined with trouble for several of his peers, Yeley moved up to 13th in the championship and now sits just 14 markers behind Brendan Gaughan for the final spot on the playoff grid.
But more than that, he got a moment that he could share with the team he’s driven for and supported for two years.
It was a moment that was as much about life as it was about racing, and it was one that was special for all who looked close enough to appreciate it.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 23-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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