Justin Haleyâs unlikely Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway produced several feel-good emotions.
Simply stated, something like this wasnât supposed to happen.
The upstart Spire Motorsports No. 77âs best finish entering the weekend was 28th without a single lap led all season. In fact, the team had never even finished on the lead lap before Sunday.
Haley, making just his third start at the highest level, was only running 27th at the time he avoided the 17-car Big One that erupted on lap 118. He inherited the lead following a series of pit stops, including one in which NASCAR gave the field the one-to-go signal, before a lightning strike further delayed the race.
That one-to-go signal encouraged then-leader Kurt Busch to ditch the lead in exchange for fuel and tires, but the race never resumed, concludingÂ an hour and a half later with a shocked Spire Motorsports group was given word itÂ had just won at the World Center of Racing in only itsÂ 17th start.
But there was also a cloud of controversy hanging over the teamâs triumph.
Spire Motorsports is owned by Spire Sports + Entertainment, an agency that represents clients across all three national touring divisions — and organizations itsÂ still-new No. 77 car races against on a weekly basis.
In addition to Haley, it also represents Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ross Chastain and numerous other drivers racing against the team on Sundays.
Haley himself was only in the car this weekend because he is a Spire Sports + Entertainment client, essentially racing for the team he pays to represent him.
Spire also represents sponsors across numerous motorsport disciplines. It has worked behind the scenes with Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, in addition to Toyota Racing Development. It even represents Knoxville Raceway in Iowa.
It has a tremendous amount of influence in the sport, and those influences carry an inherent conflict of interest.
The team has also earned criticism for purchasing the charter previously held by Furniture Row Racing — one of the most lucrative franchises in the sport due to a provision that pays teams based on the charterâs previous three season finishes — but without fielding a competitive team.
Spire doesnât even have a race shop, choosing to operate out of the Premium Motorsports building.
At face value, it appeared as if Spire purchased a charter to collect its revenue without putting a competitive team on the racetrack — and now, that team backed into a win on one of the leagueâs brightest stages.
Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson doesnât shy away from the criticism. Sunday night wasnât the first time he has heard the phrases “cash grab” or “black eye,” but he does feel there are some misconceptions about his latest enterprise.
Spire represented Furniture Row and only bought the charter for $6 million when SpireÂ wasÂ unable to convince any other organization in the industry to take it instead.
“If this is a cash grab, I wish someone would tell me where the cash is,” Dickerson told Autoweek on Sunday. “Anyone else could have bought that charter if it was a cash grab. We were trying to sell that charter for four months. We talked to everyone about buying it, and no one did.
“So, if we are going to talk about how valuable they are, and if itâs a cash grab, then any of the other 35 car owners would have bought it.”
Dickerson has been in the sport for nearly two decades, serving in numerous roles. He has been a spotter, an executive and a representative. NowÂ heâs a car owner — but without divesting from those other roles.
He says he and partner T.J. Puchyr ultimately decided to go all-in on NASCAR as team owners, believing in the next-generation initiatives spearheaded by Jim France, Steve Phelps and Steve OâDonnell — namely, the seventh-generation race car and the upcoming engine platform and sponsorship model.
Dickerson said if this wereÂ a cash grab, then why would he “jump into the fire” when everyone else is jumping out?
“We bought this because weâre betting on the sport coming to us,” Dickerson said. “We believe in the sport. We believe in the Gen-7. We believe in the initiatives that NASCAR is undertaking.
“As Chip Ganassi said to us a decade ago, ‘Own your properties.’ So I chuckle at the cash grab part because that didnât stop the banks. We have everything leveraged in betting on this sport. We have bet everything that we have ever done on the line because we believe in the future of the sport. So, if this is a cash grab, I canât wait for the cash.”
In owning their own properties, however, Spire is now becoming a major influencer in the sport alongside the soon-to-be-merged NASCAR-International Speedway Corp.Â conglomerate and Speedway Motorsports Inc.
Spire is an agency that does business with Toyota but is racing each week with Chevrolet. It negotiates driver contracts and sponsorships with race teamsÂ while also racing against them on a weekly basis. It very well could find itself in competition with itsÂ partners for sponsorship dollars while also representing them.
Thatâs the very definition of a conflict of interest.
After all, Major League Baseball wouldn’t allow superagent Scott Boras to purchase a franchise. Tom Condon would not be allowed to buyÂ aÂ National Football League team. But NASCAR has allowed the top agency in the sport to purchase the equivalent of a franchise — a team ownership charter.
Dickerson understands the concern, but doesnât agree with it, because he says he has the blessing of the industry.
“We didnât do this without consulting our partners,” Dickerson said. “So, when we talk about the ethics of it all, that only matters to the clients, you know what I mean?
“We didnât do anything without talking to our clients. So, what are the ethics? Letâs make sure weâre talking about the same thing. We didnât do anything without talking to Mr. Hendrick or (TRD president) David Wilson or Chip Ganassi.
“So, I understand what you guys are saying. But I would say itâs not a conflict to the people we are working with. Is that a conflict if they don’t have a problem with it? Iâve been racing my whole life. Iâve been racing against my friends forever. And remember, I was spotting for drivers who raced against the drivers I represented. So, Iâm just saying that conflict is relative.”
And lastly, Dickerson maintains that he and Puchyr are in this for the long haul. They are not going to collect the charter revenue and sell over the next three years, they say. Dickerson believes NASCAR will attract new manufacturers through the Gen-7 and next-generation sponsorship model.
He believes he can make Spire Motorsports more competitive leading up to the debut of the Gen-7 and for years afterward. Rome just wasnât built in a day, even if the No. 77 snuck the puck by the goalie on Sunday at Daytona.
“I would say for the plate races, weâve done really f***ing well,” Dickerson said. “We donât come from money. We have to build this team and do it the right way. If people want to say weâre not trying, I would point to the plate races, because thatâs the first place where we can make progress. I would point to Talladega and say Justin was doing really freaking well until he got caught up in a wreck.
“As Joe Garone said, does anyone remember Furniture Row when they first showed up? And thatâs the other thing:Â We didnât buy Furniture Row Racing. We bought the charter. So, we donât have the cars and resources that they had at the end. We just have the charter. We have to build off that.”
Dickerson said Spire has several announcements planned over the summer that will better reveal itsÂ intentions to remain in the sport long-term. And even if fans or the media do not fully understand them, NASCAR seemingly does. Â
“We have some pretty cool announcements weâre about to reveal,” Dickerson said. “Iâm excited about that. But our partners and NASCAR, they all know what weâre trying to build here. Thatâs why no one is getting bumpy with us. Weâre doing exactly what we said we would do.”
Dickerson calls himself the “luckiest man in the world” after Sunday night. He knows the team wasn’t supposed to win. But he maintains, the accusation of conflicts aside, that his organization has done everything the right way.
They’ve fielded a car with a long-term vision, and they have done it unexpectedly only because no one else was willing to step up and purchase the Furniture Row charter.
“The team owners who say you can only do this ‘for profit’Â or ‘to win,’ we probably talked to them about buying the charter,” he said. “If itâs so f***ing valuable, then that owner could have bought it, you know. We tried. We are bullish about this sport.
“Donât forget that we paid the most for a charter ever. That was us. We didnât cheat the system to do this. And if anyone wants to suggest that, they know where to find us. Iâm just trying to defend my guys because weâve been in the garage for a long time. We didnât cheat the system to acquire a charter and we didnât cheat the system to win a race.
“We were very opportunistic. When we were given the chance to buy the charter after all other options failed, we could have lamented the state of the sport orÂ we could have acquired the vision to look out three to five years. What did we have to lose?”
With nothing to lose, they’re suddenly and unexpectedly Cup Series winners, way ahead of schedule.