DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the most stunning of upsets, part-time rookie Justin Haley scored his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in a rain-shortened affair Sunday afternoon at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Haley, a regular in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing, never led a lap under green-flag conditions all day long but found himself in position at the front of the field after escaping a 17-car accident in turn one that brought out the caution flag on lap 119.
He was running third under yellow behind Kurt Busch and Landon Cassill after several lead-lap cars pitted early in the yellow period, but inherited the top spot when the field was given the one-to-go signal from the flagstand, leading Busch and Cassill’s crew chiefs to call their drivers down for service.
However, Haley’s signal-caller – veteran Peter Sospenzo – elected to keep the 20-year-old Winamac, Inc., native on the race track at lap 127.
That move paid dividends when lightning in the area forced NASCAR officials to display the red flag and bring the field down pit road, freezing the field after pit stops and leaving Haley out front.
From there, a delay of more than an hour ensued before the track was successfully dried and drivers were recalled to their race cars, but just as the race was about to resume at 4:21 p.m., another lightning delay forced the extension of the red flag and eventually the premature end of the 400-mile event.
After heavy rain moved into the Daytona Beach area, the race was finally called official at 5:30 p.m.
Haley becomes the 193rd driver in history to win a race at NASCAR’s premier series level, and was stoic despite the immense emotion of the moment when he spoke inside the media center after the race.
“I’m just a dirt racer from Indiana; I never could have dreamed this moment,” said Haley, who was running 27th just before the lap-119 accident. “It’s absolutely a blessing. It’s pretty incredible, especially after all the people that have surrounded me and given me the opportunity to come and race at this level. I never even saw myself running a Cup race before I got the call a couple of months ago to come and do Talladega, so it’s unreal. I don’t even know how to feel.
“I heard the rain start getting harder, but I didn’t dare hope until they told me for sure.”
Haley was only credited with leading one lap – the final one – en route to his upset win on Sunday.
Of interesting note, Sunday’s victory was the second win by a No. 77 car in Cup Series history. Joe Lee Johnson previously triumphed in a No. 77 Chevrolet at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville in 1959.
The players at the front of the field were completely scrambled with 42 to go when then-leader Austin Dillon attempted to block a big run by Clint Bowyer entering turn one.
Bowyer kept his foot in the throttle and didn’t lift, making contact with Dillon that ultimately turned the No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in front of the entire field, leading to mass chaos.
In all, nearly half the field was swept up in the race-altering incident, including Bowyer, Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Ryan Preece and defending July Daytona winner Erik Jones.
Following pit stops and the race-ending weather system, William Byron ended up finishing as the runner-up to Haley, scoring his career-best Cup Series finish in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24.
Byron was pleased with his result, but surprised that he snuck through the carnage at the front.
“I don’t know how I survived that wreck,” Byron admitted. “We were really fortunate, all through that race, to have good luck and good pit stops all day long. We’d been working well with our teammates and the right holes just opened up. We were fourth on the bottom lane, and I saw the 3 (Dillon) spinning and couldn’t even hit the brakes that hard because he started coming up the track. The seas just parted.”
Jimmie Johnson was credited with third at the finish, followed by Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman.
Corey LaJoie, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto and Matt Tifft finished sixth through ninth, respectively, with Kurt Busch completing the top 10 and enduring heartbreak after pitting a lap before the red flag.
Polesitter Joey Logano was collected in the Big One and scored 25th, two laps down, at the finish.