NASCAR

Joe Gibbs Racing Made a Rare Mistake When They Replaced Their First Champion

In the past two decades, there have been few organizations in motorsports as respected and dominant as Joe Gibbs Racing. The numbers speak for themselves: 186 Cup Series wins, four Daytona 500 wins, and five Cup Series championships. But when it came time to replace the driver who brought home the first of those championships, Gibbs made a rare misjudgment by bringing in the unproven J.J. Yeley as his replacement.

Joe Gibbs replaces a champion

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After years of consistently finishing near the top of the points standings, Bobby Labonte finally broke through in 2000. That season, he scored four wins and a series-high 19 top-five finishes to bring home JGR’s first Cup Series championship. Such was his consistency over the 2000 season that he finished a whopping 265 points ahead of second-place Dale Earnhardt.

Unfortunately, after that, Labonte’s career went into a gradual decline. His performances in 2001-2003 were decent, but a far cry from his championship form of years past. He finished sixth, 16th, and eighth in those three seasons.

By 2004, his form had gone into a serious nosedive. Aside from a heartbreaking last-lap loss at the 2005 Coca-Cola 600, Labonte was never a threat to win races. The writing was on the wall, and Joe Gibbs Racing parted company with him after the 2005 season. For 2006, Labonte settled into the famous no. 43 car of Petty Enterprises.

J.J. Yeley flames out

J.J. Yeley, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries car during the 2006 season
J.J. Yeley, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet, waiting to qualify for the Dickies 500 in November 2006 at Texas Motor Speedway | Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR

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The man Joe Gibbs settled on as Labonte’s replacement was J.J. Yeley, who had major success in USAC. This may have been a questionable choice even at the time, as Yeley had done relatively little in NASCAR to this point. He had only one full-time Busch Series season under his belt, in which he failed to score a win and finished 11th in the standings.

Sure enough, the inexperienced Yeley utterly bombed in the Cup Series. His final numbers across two full seasons with JGR: zero wins, only one top-five finish (a second-place at the 2007 Coca-Cola 600), and six top-ten finishes. Gibbs wisely eschewed Yeley in favor of Kyle Busch for the 2008 season.

Yeley’s most infamous moment came at the October 2006 race at Charlotte. Late in the race, he slowed to turn toward pit road. In the process, he cut into the path of both Mark Martin and Robby Gordon, causing a three-car wreck. At the time, Martin sat second in points and had a shot at winning an elusive championship, so this wreck was especially devastating.

Joe Gibbs Racing has developed stars such as the aforementioned Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano. Still, their decision to advance Yeley into the Cup Series with such an unproven track record shows that even Gibbs is prone to errors every now and then.

What happened to Yeley and Labonte?

Ironically, the man Yeley replaced, Bobby Labonte, had a better 2006 season despite being in the twilight of his career. In a Petty Enterprises Dodge that was dismally underpowered compared to what he had at Gibbs, Labonte scored three top-fives and eight top-tens to finish 21st.

That still wasn’t great, but it was eight places higher than Yeley. The next season, Labonte improved to 18th, finishing three places above Yeley. He ran his last Cup Series race in 2016.

Yeley managed to stick around in NASCAR all the way until 2020, when he ran all but two of the Cup Series races for several different teams. As per usual, he failed to score a top ten, although he did lead two laps.

Statistics courtesy of Racing-Reference.