LONG POND, Pa. -- JJ Yeley thought he'd be back before now.
When Yeley was replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Kyle Busch following the 2007 NASCAR season, the easygoing driver from Arizona thought he'd have little trouble finding a team clamoring for his services.
Young driver. Good looks. Engaging personality. Solid results. What's not to like?
He landed on his feet -- sort of -- at Hall of Fame Racing in 2008, but found himself out of a job barely halfway through the season.
And just like that, the phone stopped ringing.
Part of that was by choice. Yeley figures he could have found a ride or two with a team just hoping to qualify for a race and then pull off the track at the first opportunity. They're known as "start and parks" in the industry, field fillers mostly. It wasn't a palatable option after spending two years driving full-time for one of NASCAR's top teams.
"I had a lot of people say 'Stay away from certain cars because then you get tagged,"' Yeley said.
So Yeley tried to wait it out, figuring eventually the economy would turn around. A year passed. He hung out at home with his young daughter and grabbed a handful of Truck Series starts as a favor to a friend.
Yeley's perspective changed after he crashed while driving a Sprint bandit car in Kansas. He barrel-rolled at least eight times by his count and was knocked out for a few moments.
When he came to he felt a pain in his neck. He thought it was nothing. He was wrong.
X-rays revealed a fracture in his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae. The doctors gave him two options. He could wear a brace for six months and let it heal naturally or he could have surgery and cut his rehabilitation time in half.
Guess which he chose.
After wearing the brace for a couple weeks, he had surgery and was back ready to race by the fall.
Suddenly, the idea of driving for a fledgling operation didn't seem so bad. Panic had a little bit to do with it. The injury combined with his time away from the garage made him feel invisible.
"People tell you if you're not there, you'll be forgotten, but until you actually experience it like I did, I would have never realized that it happened that quick," he said.
So instead of staying home and waiting for the phone to not ring, he started showing up at the track. And instead of waiting for some team to approach him with a deal, he approached sponsors in hopes of selling himself as a package deal to any interested owners.
It's a long way from his days at JGR, where all he had to do was shake hands and hop in the car. Not anymore. He's OK with that.
"There's a point where you have to realize you're going to be better off going to the racetrack, maybe making more out of a finish or a run with lesser equipment," he said. "Maybe something's going to open someone's eyes versus walking around a garage with nothing to do still trying to influence someone's decision just based on whatever stories you can tell."
Too bad. Yeley can spin a yarn with the best of him. His Twitter account is an entertaining unfiltered glimpse into the mind of a competitor who feels he can still get out there and race with the best of them.
And it occasionally breaks news, too. Yeley inadvertently spilled the beans when he wished Brian Vickers a speedy recovery after the Red Bull Racing driver was hospitalized with blood clots.
"I felt bad," he said with a laugh. "Now it sounds like I'm spreading rumors or doing something."
Hardly. He doesn't have the time. He's too busy meeting with potential sponsors and trying to jell with the crew at Whitney Motorsports.
Yeley replaced Terry Cook for Dusty Whitney's first-year operation in Darlington. Yeley's now 4 for 4 in making the Cup field since his debut.
His next goal? Getting the No. 46 Dodge -- bought from Ray Evernham -- competitive.
Yeley has finished just one of his four starts. And yes, he admits there's an irony that the guy who didn't want to drive for a "start and park" is now doing just that. Yeley ran 40 laps during last week's race at Pocono before heading to the garage.
He tweeted that he was "like a baby" when he left the track. He watched the end of the race from a Ruby Tuesday. He's hoping for a better view this weekend at Michigan.
If Yeley can get into the 43-car field, the plan is to run the entire race. And that's where this gig and other "start and parks" differ. Whitney is determined to do more than enter, run a couple laps, take a check from NASCAR and head to the next track.
If so, Yeley better get ready. He discovered how out of shape he was during the 600-mile race at Charlotte two weeks ago, when he ended up running the entire race after other teams started giving the No. 46 team slightly used tires so it could finish the race.
Being exhausted is a good problem to have. He remains optimistic the team can become more competitive with a little bit of money and seasoning. He'd like to run in the top half of the field this weekend.
"I want to be in front of that second pace car," he said. "If we go out there and run top 25 in the race, that's quite an accomplishment for a team that's run one competitive race the first year out."
And if not, Yeley will be out there anyway, running the tires off the car until someone tells him to stop.
"It's a situation where you have to cut your ego back and just give it your all and just give the best out of your equipment and everyone's hard work and just make the best of it," he said.