In a span of five laps in 2011, DJ VanderLey went from local racer to national star.
VanderLey went wheel-to-wheel with Chase Elliott over the last five laps in one of the Snowball Derby’s most iconic moments. VanderLey led Elliott by inches every lap, until the final circuit. A slip in turn three on the last lap allowed Elliott to get to the flag first.
VanderLey, who had won a handful of Pro Late Model races before that night, settled for second. He admittedly thinks about that night often.
“I think about that race nearly every day,” VanderLey said with a chuckle. “It was the highest of highs and a highlight of my driving career, but it also sucks because we came so close. You always wonder ‘What if?’ Who knows what I could’ve become if I had beat him. That might be me in that No. 24 Cup car.”
Nearly as quick as VanderLey’s stock rose, he was gone from the weekly short-track wars. He graduated high school, and moved on to Auburn University where he earned an engineering degree.
He hasn’t slid in the window of a race car in two years. But he is back at the track this weekend wheeling a Pro Truck for long-time friend Curt Britt.
“My last race was the Derby in 2015,” VanderLey said. “I’ve been friends with Curt Britt for a long time, and raced with him about 10 or 12 years ago. We kept in touch and now that Curt is getting a little older, he doesn’t drive as much. Three or four months ago, he gave me a call and I jumped at the chance to drive.”
Even though he is no longer behind the wheel full-time, VanderLey is still living his childhood dream behind the scenes in NASCAR.
Now an engineer for Stewart-Haas Racing’s NASCAR XFINITY Series team, the Theodore, Alabama native still works every day to make his racing machines go faster. These days he does it from on top of the pit box, and not the driver’s seat.
In the XFINITY season finale, VanderLey, driver Cole Custer and team dominated the race to score the company’s first win.
“We had a like a 15 or 16 second lead down there,” VanderLey said. “I was praying that guys didn’t wreck in the closing laps. Once we finally sealed it, we all let a big sigh of relief. Going to victory lane is something I always dreamed about, and here I was. It was a huge deal for everyone.”
And in case any car owners are looking for a driver, VanderLey is ready, willing and able to get back in the saddle.
“The itch to drive is still here, and it always will be,” VanderLey said. “I am always ready to hop in something, so if anyone out there has a car, truck, bomber, bicycle…I don’t care. If you want it raced, I’ll drive the wheels off of it.”
That’s exactly what he’ll do when he straps into a Pro Truck Saturday night to compete in his first race in nearly two years.
Race fans can watch VanderLey and the rest of the 30-plus Pro Trucks on the Speed51.com live broadcast. Live video tickets can be purchased today by clicking here.
-By Ryan McCollough, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent – Twitter: @RyanLMcCollough
-Photo credit: Speed51.com