As he crossed the stripe for the 400th time in Monday’s rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600, JJ Yeley was rewarded with a solid 16th-place finish. A grueling weekend, packed full of long waits was well worth the wait for the driver of the Rick Ware Racing No. 15 Patriot Mobile Ford Mustang.

While, the finish didn’t mark Yeley’s best finish of the season, which was an 11th-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway back in April, this 16th-place run at Charlotte Motor Speedway had a historical significance for the team that holds two Charters in the top series in American motorsport.

According to Joseph Srigley of Srigley Stats, Monday’s 16th-place run for Yeley marked the best-ever finish for a Rick Ware Racing car in the NASCAR Cup Series at a non-superspeedway track.

“It’s cool,” Yeley said of the stat. “I would say, I’ve had quite a few of those firsts with Rick, and obviously, that’s the reason he brought me on years ago was for my experience and the respect of the equipment and just trying to maximize the product I was given as a race car driver. I still try to hold true to that. At the end of the day, these cars are very expensive, and putting them into bad situations can quickly become costly for the team owner.

“The guys worked hard, and we had a great car last week in Charlotte. I think I’m most proud of the fact of it wasn’t a situation where we finished 16th because of attrition or a lot of crazy scenarios. We had great, raw speed and earned a really good finish, and for the organization, currently their best. And, our goal is to obviously, be better than that.”

Yeley says that while his car handled great in the race, which had no practice or qualifying due to weather at the track on Saturday, he was cautious to feel that he had a good finish in the bag.

“As many years as I’ve been running the Coca-Cola 600, I don’t think there’s any point during that race that you say that. At least out loud,” Yeley joked in an exclusive interview with Racing America.

The Phoenix, Arizona native says his No. 15 machine fired off great from the green flag of the race but said before the halfway point in the race, a mechanical issue cropped up on his car. Thankfully, a caution for rain on Lap 157 helped Yeley and the No. 15 team address the problem.

“There was a point, right before the rain delay, the steering started getting really heavy. We actually had a part failure in one of the steering brackets that, thankfully because of the rain delay, we just put a lot of lubricant onto the bearing and it kept it from ceasing up,” Yeley explained. “It gave me back a better feel of the car through the steering wheel that I was starting to lose because of that failure.”

With the steering bracket bearing greased back up, Yeley and the Rick Ware Racing team were back in business.

“We were a lot faster than some cars in front of us. We had really good long-run speed,” Yeley stated. “Passing was very difficult. I didn’t push real early, but obviously, with 50 laps to go, it was time to throw caution to the wind and really try to get the most out of what the car was capable of.”

The finish was good, but had there been a few more laps, Yeley believes the finish would have been even better.

“I know the last 10 laps, I was about three-to-four tenths faster than the two Kaulig cars that were right in front of us. I wish there would have been another 10 laps, we could have possibly raced into the top-15, but we were in really good company. A lot of big teams, a lot of guys who have been fast.”

With this latest run in the books, the 46-year-old is quietly stringing together a very formidable run with the Rick Ware Racing team this season, as Monday marked Yeley’s third top-20 finish in 10 starts this year in the NASCAR Cup Series. Yeley’s average finish in 2023 is 25.2, which is 4.7 positions per race better than his average finish (29.9) during the 2022 season.

So, what’s changed for Rick Ware Racing and JJ Yeley? A lot.

“There’s a lot of different things, right? Robby Benton has really been pressing Rick [Ware] into not only looking for the competition side but being able to help manage and to take some of the load off of Rick’s plate,” Yeley said. “Rick has always — from when I’ve been a part of this program — been very hands-on and is always going, going, going.

“I think having Robby be a part of the program has helped alleviate some of the stress and some of the burden, and over the last four or five races, they’ve brought in Tommy Baldwin to make some changes. He too has used his years and time in this sport and relationships to really maximize all of the resources that we can get from various opportunities.”

One of the biggest resources for the RWR team this season has been a new alliance with RFK Racing, which was forged in the offseason.

While the team was aligned with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2022, Yeley says the alliance with RFK Racing is elevated by comparison. The team no longer feels like they are, “on an island,” by themselves, and the information they are receiving from RFK Racing is translating to consistently faster race cars. The dividends from the investment into the RFK Racing alliance are being realized by the team already.

That being said, Yeley and RWR are still realistic and understand they still have a long way to go before they can be considered in the same breath as some of the true top teams in the sport.

“We know that we’re still not 100% compared to where the big teams are. At the end of the day, it still comes down to funding,” Yeley explained. “Knowing what kind of budget we are operating off of, and being in the sport, and knowing what other teams have to know that we’re coming in with a fraction of the sponsorship and funding and able to compete and beat some of those bigger teams is really the David versus Goliath story, and proud to be a part of what RWR has become.”

However, runs like Monday’s at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a crown jewel event will go a long way toward opening the eyes of new sponsors for RWR, and Yeley says if they can get in a room with the sponsors, the amount of attention they can provide their partners is on par, or above par from that of the mega teams in the sport.

“Again, through a lot of hard work and some very well-spent funds over the last 12-18 months, there is no physical — or at least visual difference between our program and any other Cup team in the garage,” Yeley said. “From the equipment to the cars to pit equipment, to the experience that the sponsor gets when they come to the race track. Honestly, I feel like we do a much better job of catering to the sponsors than some of the bigger teams do just because we value every dollar and cent we can bring into the program.

“To be able to now have better performance, hopefully, that leads to either more sponsorship or bigger opportunities that will bring more speed into the program. Regardless of anything, in any professional sport, money typically makes you better. In our case, it’ll make us faster, we can get more people, and that equates to speed.”

Yeley says his 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule isn’t set in stone, and it will be a true rotating schedule where he plugs in when there are opportunities available. But he says he’ll be back for several more races with Rick Ware Racing in the No. 15 and No. 51 car throughout the year. Yeley says Patriot Mobile, which sponsored him this past weekend, will be back with him for a handful of races throughout the year, and Yeley has negotiations ongoing with several other prospective primary sponsors.

This weekend, Yeley will move to the team’s No. 51 entry in the Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, while Gray Gaulding will join Yeley in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing entry for his first NASCAR Cup Series start since the 2020 season.

Article by Toby Christie on Jun 1, 2023 from
Photo Credit: Craig White, Racing America