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Thursday July 18th, 2019 11:35AM

Haley scores surprise first Cup Series victory at Daytona

By Pete McCole
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As if restrictor plate races weren’t enough of a wildcard event to begin with, throw in an extra day and some rain and lightning in the mix and you’ve got one of the most unexpected moments in NASCAR.

On Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, everything aligned – for better or worse – for driver Justin Haley, who found himself leading the race after 127 laps when lightning brought out the red flag in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and was declared the winner after drenching rain forced NASCAR officials to throw in the towel.

Haley led just one lap – officially, the lap where the field was brought to pit road for the red flag – and earned his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in just his third Cup Series start.

“It’s absolutely a blessing,” said Haley, a 20-year-old Indiana native. “It’s pretty incredible that I have so many great people around me that have given me this opportunity to come here to this level and stage that we are performing on. I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega. It’s just unreal and I don’t know how to put it. I don’t know how to feel.”

Haley, a rookie driving full-time for Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, patiently waited out the rain delay knowing everything could change – he’d experienced this before.

Just a year ago Haley thought he had won his first Xfinity Series race after beating out Kyle Larson at Daytona, but NASCAR officials ruled he had passed under the double-yellow line and awarded the win to Larson.

Haley found a bit of redemption on Friday, when he finished runner-up in Friday night’s Xfinity race behind teammate Ross Chastain.

“The stars aligned and I didn’t ever think I was going to get redemption back from a few years back in Daytona, and last year when I got the Xfinity win taken away from me,” said Haley. “So, to come back and get redemption in the Cup Series is pretty cool and makes that second place finish with Kaulig last Friday a lot better.”

Sunday’s victory was the first for Spire Motorsports – a motorsports management and marketing agency that bought the charter and the assets of the defunct Furniture Row Racing last year.

While this weekend was without a doubt a memorable one for Haley, but it was certainly not the finish anyone, including NASCAR, was expecting.

Track officials had been chasing the unpredictable Florida summer weather all weekend – first with a rain delay in Friday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, and then forcing to postpone Saturday night’s Cup Series race due to rain.

Sunday’s race started under increasingly cloudy skies and the threat of rain played a big role in how the race strategies played out with everyone wanting to be out front in the third and final stage in case weather ended the race early.

Defending Cup Series Champion Joey Logano and 2014 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon were the drivers to beat early on – leading a combined 75 of the first 100 laps and winning the first and second stages, respectively.

Logano won the race off pit road with a two-tire stop and lined up at head of the field for the restart, followed by Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott.

At the start of the third stage, Jones and Austin Dillon powered to the front with Logano running close behind, setting the stage for another back and forth battle for the lead.

Finally on lap 117, the wheels came off.

While battling a hard-charging Denny Hamlin for the lead, Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer made a power move on the high side. After clearing Hamlin, Bowyer made a move to low side and Dillon came down to block, sending Dillon spinning off the front bumper of Bowyer and touching off a 17-car pile up that claimed nearly all the drivers in the top 10, including Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Chase Elliott and last weekend’s winner Alex Bowman.

When the smoke cleared, Kurt Busch found himself out in front under the yellow flag, but both he and Haley elected to stay out under the ensuing caution – putting them 1-2 for the restart.

Byron won the race off pit road ahead of Johnson, Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman and lined up behind Kurt Busch and Haley

As the field was given one lap to go under the caution flag, Kurt Busch headed to pit road for his final pit stop just moments before a lightning strike in the vicinity of the track forced NASCAR to throw the red flag – putting Haley out front as the cars were brought to pit road.

Kurt Busch’s team obviously not happy with the call, believing the decision cost them a chance to win the race.

“I feel like we were in a really good position to win the race and it’s just a matter of when the one random lightning bolt comes down to decide when you make the call,” said Kurt Busch. “It was a judgment call on their part.”

NASCAR held the cars on pit road for more than an hour and at one point called drivers back to their cars, but continued lightning in the area and rain showers prompted officials to call the race.

William Byron was credited was a second-place finish, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman

For Byron, the second-place finish marked a career-best – coming one position short of joining teammate Alex Bowman as a first-time winner.

“It took us a little while to get to the front from the back and finish second. So that was good,” said Byron. “You’re up and down a lot here. It would have been cool to win, for sure. But, it would have been a really weird way to win. So, I’m glad that we got the day out of it that we did. I would have liked to go back racing and win it the way I wanted to, but our team did a great job this week managing all the chaos and finishing second with a back-up car is pretty good. Overall it was a good race for us.”

Corey LaJoie finished sixth for his career-best Cup Series finish. Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Matt Tifft and Kurt Busch rounded out the top ten.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, FL
Coke Zero Sugar 400 – July 7, 2019

1. (34) Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 127.
2. (12) William Byron, Chevrolet, 127.
3. (14) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 127.
4. (23) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 127.
5. (18) Ryan Newman, Ford, 127.
6. (30) Corey LaJoie, Ford, 127.
7. (11) Aric Almirola, Ford, 127.
8. (25) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 127.
9. (31) Matt Tifft #, Ford, 127.
10. (8) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 127.
11. (33) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 127.
12. (37) J.J. Yeley, Ford, 127.
13. (28) Michael McDowell, Ford, 127.
14. (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 127.
15. (29) Darrell Wallace, Jr., Chevrolet, 127.
16. (20) Paul Menard, Ford, 127.
17. (22) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 127.
18. (24) Daniel Hemric #, Chevrolet, 127.
19. (39) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 126.
20. (13) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 126.
21. (9) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 126.
22. (5) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota, 126.
23. (17) Erik Jones, Toyota, 125.
24. (19) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ford, 125.
25. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 125.
26. (6) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 125.
27. (40) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 125.
28. (35) B.J. McLeod(i), Ford, 124.
29. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 124.
30. (38) Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 122.
31. (36) Parker Kligerman(i), Toyota, Accident, 121.
32. (26) Ryan Preece #, Chevrolet, Accident, 119.
33. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 118.
34. (16) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Accident, 118.
35. (7) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, Accident, 118.
36. (10) Ryan Blaney, Ford, Accident, 118.
37. (32) Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 108.
38. (27) David Ragan, Ford, Accident, 86.
39. (3) Brad Keselowski, Ford, Accident, 85.
40. (15) Daniel Suarez, Ford, Accident, 83.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 141.146 mph.

Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 14 Mins, 58 Secs. Margin of Victory: Under Caution.

Caution Flags: 6 for 25 laps.

Lead Changes: 24 among 14 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1;K. Busch 2;J. Logano 3-35;K. Busch 36-37;K. Harvick 38-49;J. Logano 50-51;R. Preece # 52;C. Elliott 53-55;R. Stenhouse Jr. 56-57;A. Dillon 58-60;C. Bowyer 61-62;A. Dillon 63;R. Blaney 64;A. Dillon 65-96;C. Bowyer 97;A. Dillon 98-102;C. Buescher 103;J. Logano 104-105;A. Dillon 106-109;J. Logano 110-111;P. Menard 112;D. Hamlin 113-117;A. Dillon 118;K. Busch 119-126;J. Haley(i) 127.

Leaders Summary: (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led) Austin Dillon 6 times for 46 laps; Joey Logano 5 times for 40 laps; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 12 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 8 laps; Denny Hamlin 1 time for 5 laps; Clint Bowyer 2 times for 3 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 3 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 3 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1 time for 2 laps; Ryan Blaney 1 time for 1 lap; Paul Menard 1 time for 1 lap; Chris Buescher 1 time for 1 lap; Ryan Preece # 1 time for 1 lap; Justin Haley(i) 1 time for 1 lap.

Top 10 in Points: 1. Joey Logano – 700 (2 Wins); 2. Kyle Busch – 682 (4 Wins); 3. Kevin Harvick – 625; 4. Brad Keselowski – 613 (3 Wins); 5. Martin Truex, Jr. – 597 (4 Wins); 6. Denny Hamlin – 588 (2 Wins); 7. Chase Elliott – 585 (1 Wins); 8. Kurt Busch – 564; 9. Alex Bowman – 534 (1 Win); 10. Aric Almirola – 512.

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