- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Early on in the 2007 Nextel Cup Series season, long before the Dale Earnhardt Jr. rumors or the Kyle Busch speculation, J.J. Yeley had an inkling that his time at Joe Gibbs Racing was short. It was a contract year, after all, so he began discussing future driving opportunities with other teams throughout the garage area.
He was prepared for this.
And now that Busch is officially established as his replacement in the No. 18 for 2008, Yeley is mulling his future. He told ESPN.com Thursday that he is considering four Nextel Cup teams -- teams he says are every bit as capable as Joe Gibbs Racing.
"It's not done by any means," said Yeley, lounging in his motorhome just outside Bristol Motor Speedway. "The last couple weeks I've become surprised with the opportunities that have become available for me, in rides that are just as good, with teams that are just as good as Joe Gibbs Racing.
"That makes me feel good that there's team owners out there that aren't affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing that think I have the talent to go out there and win races and win championships, that want to invest in me like you would [invest in] a Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson -- the guys that are the cream of the crop in NASCAR right now."
Not surprisingly, Yeley wouldn't divulge which four organizations are in play, but did say he's taking his time because a wrong decision could irreparably affect his career.
"We're trying to figure out what is going to be the best situation for me long term, and making sure I have all the things in my mind that I did wrong at Joe Gibbs Racing so I don't make those same mistakes the second time around," Yeley said.
"This decision has to be a good one, because at this point I have to prove myself and show that it was the situation I was in that was bad, that it wasn't anything other than that."
Yeley, who along with Stewart are the only two drivers to ever win all three USAC sprint car series in the same year, admits the transition to a Nextel Cup stock car took much more patience than he was accustomed to.
He wasn't prepared for all the variables involved in success, mainly the importance of communication with his crew chief, the ability to gradually adjust the car throughout a 500-mile race instead of trying to manhandle it and, ultimately, overdrive it into a mistake or wreck.
And then there's the pressure that comes with having successful teammates.
"I know it makes it a little bit more difficult having a teammate like Denny [Hamlin] -- not because he's a bad teammate but because he's more familiar with things," Yeley said. "Things came easier for him. Success came faster. I've never been to the point where I resented Denny for his success. But it's tough. Of course it's tough. My teammate's going out there making the Chase and we're struggling."
In retrospect, he wishes he'd been more vocal.
"There's a lot of things looking back I wish I could change, or would have spoken up more, but that's just not the kind of person I am," he said. "I'm just so grateful for the opportunity I was given to be here I've never really complained enough to maybe get changes, see changes, get more attention. Obviously there came a point where I was the odd man out."
And now he's considered the hottest free agent on the market by many industry executives. He's flattered, but can't help but chuckle at the notion.
"A month ago it was Kyle Busch," he laughed. "You have to be smart about it. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. became available and there were rumors he was going to the 18, it didn't matter how good I was going to do -- you're going to lose out to a guy like that.
"And Kyle, he's had great success and been in great equipment. I hope things don't change for him when he makes this jump [to Gibbs]. I think sometimes you have to make changes. I don't think they're going to make changes for him right off the get-go.
"He might not see the success he wants and he might make the change I wish they had made for me. I can't worry about that. That's the past."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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