Justin Haley, a 20-year-old driver from Winamac, Indiana, steered clear of a big wreck and benefitted from shrewd pit strategy, a perfectly timed lightning strike and a downpour to win in just his third NASCAR Cup race Sunday. It sounds as if we have not heard the last of him.
âGot lucky today but is one hell of a race car driver,â tweeted no less an authority than the former stock-car driver Mark Martin.
Haley, who won the rain-delayed and rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway for the back-of-the-pack team Spire Motorsports, plans to spend the rest of the season focusing on a title in the second-tier Xfinity Series, in which he is in eighth place.
Because he had declared his intention to win an Xfinity title, Haley wonât be eligible for a Cup championship, even though winners of Cup races in the 26-race regular season qualify for the 10-race playoffs. Haley, in fact, is not planning to drive again in Cup for Spire Motorsports in 2019.
A year after he had an apparent Xfinity victory at Daytona taken away from him because he made an illegal pass, Haley finished second in this yearâs Xfinity race, then won the Cup race on Sunday because he decided to stay on the track as Kurt Busch, the leader, made a pit stop.
Although the drivers had been told that the race would be restarted after a caution period, a bolt of lightning hit within an eight-mile radius of the speedway, causing the race to be stopped. After it poured for two hours, making a restart doubtful, Haley was declared the winner.
It was a stunning victory in a race with a rich history, and Haley, to his credit, did not pretend that heâd used an audacious move on the last lap to pass a grizzled Cup big-team veteran and take the checkered flag. Sometimes, races end with a fizzle, and he put himself in the right place at the right time.
It was very sweet and something completely out of the ordinary for NASCAR, which could use all the heart-warming stories it can get, with underdogs sweeping into Victory Lane (which, in the case Sunday, was a garage, with Haley nervously biding his time).
By all means, Haleyâs victory was legitimate, but long shots just donât have a chance to win races anymore unless something extremely unusual happens — which it did Sunday. Three big-ticket teams hogged up the first 17 victories of the season. This was not a turning point, as some from NASCAR might pitch it, as much as it was a bolt from the blue.
After the Daytona race, the 16 drivers who were in positions to qualify for the playoffs were from just six teams: four from Hendrick Motorsports; three each from Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing; two from Chip Ganassiâs team, and one from Jack Roushâs team.
Besides the road courses, Daytona and Talladega are two Cup tracks at which a non-power-team guy can win, because a big wreck can take out several top contenders, which is what happened Sunday to 18 cars on the 120th of 160 scheduled laps. Haley just missed it.
Austin Dillon, who drives for the once-powerful team owned by Richard Childress, won the 2018 Daytona 500 by skirting a giant late wreck, with Bubba Wallace, driving for Richard Pettyâs struggling team, finishing second. Neither has finished that close to the front since.
(Dillon was actually the guy who caused the big wreck Sunday when he cut off Clint Bowyer while trying to protect a slim lead, sending the top cars in a smoky spin.)
Childressâs team has won three races since 2014; Richard Petty Motorsports and the Wood Brothers each have one victory in that span. Barney Visserâs gritty Furniture Row team dissolved after last season, with one of their charters going to . . .Â Spire Motorsports.
There is one more race this year at Talladega, so a longshot or underdog might sneak through another big wreck and take an unexpected victory. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won there two years ago for Roushâs once-powerful team. Those victories, like those disappearing fans, are too few nowadays.
So give Justin Haley and his Spire Motorsports crew chief, Peter Sospenzo, credit for taking advantage of weather conditions and stealing a victory. It would be terrific if the little guys won more often, under any circumstances, but they donât, so the sweetness of this might have to last a while.