DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The third time truly was the charm for 20-year-old Justin Haley on Sunday afternoon at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
One year ago during Independence Day weekend, Haley appeared to have stormed to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, before having his last-lap pass nullified because he went below the double-yellow line to pass Elliott Sadler and Kyle Larson for the victory.
Then, on Friday night, Haley endured a gut-wrenching second-place finish after the momentum of the draft stalled on the final lap and kept him from making a run at Kaulig Racing teammate Ross Chastain.
But less than 48 hours after that heartbreak, amid a swirling thunderstorm that deluged Daytona Beach, all the pieces finally came together for the Winamac, Ind., native.
Haley scored his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in just his third start at the top level during Sunday afternoon’s rain-postponed – and ultimately rain-shortened – Coke Zero Sugar 400, purely by putting himself in the right position at the right time to capitalize on some lucky breaks at long last.
His No. 77 Frateral Order of Eagles-backed, Spire Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet Camaro was 27th on lap 118 and just off the lead pack, which turned into a fortunate place to be when leader Austin Dillon was turned in front of the field by Clint Bowyer as the duo raced for the lead entering turn one.
As Dillon spun across the track, others piled in with no place to go, leading to a 17-car pileup and the elimination of many of the race’s top contenders – including stage winners Joey Logano and Dillon.
Because he was far enough back to get slowed down, Haley was able to pick his way through the chaos, ending up third behind Kurt Busch and Landon Cassill after many of the remaining frontrunners pitted.
When NASCAR called for the one-to-go signal to be displayed coming to complete lap 127, Haley suddenly found himself in the race lead as Busch and Cassill ducked down pit road for service.
But Haley and crew chief Peter Sospenzo made the gutsy call to stay out. Haley knew there was lightning in the area – he could see it – and by the time the field got around to the backstretch, a bolt hitting within eight miles of the race track led to a red-flag stoppage and the improbable potential for victory.
“It was a great strategy by Peter to leave me out there when Kurt and Landon pitted, because I did see lightning out of my windshield in (turns) three and four a good bit … and I kept calling, because I knew there was definitely lightning,” explained Haley. “We got lucky that they red‑flagged it down the backstretch and took us to pit road. It was up and down after that, because we got back in the car and were ready to fire it back up, and then more lightning and the rain finally came. The rest is history.”
As he referenced, Haley’s nerves were shot more than once, as NASCAR nearly got the race resumed at 4:20 p.m. ET before the lightning clock was reset due to another strike within eight miles of the track.
After that, the rain built in and eventually drenched the facility, leading to the race’s premature end.
“I didn’t know what to feel throughout any of that,” Haley reflected. “People kept on asking me how I felt … and really, I couldn’t do anything about it, so I was trying not to worry about it. If we went back racing, we went back racing. If it rained out, it rained out and we celebrated like we’re doing now.
“At the end of the day, I was just waiting.”
After back-to-back July heartbreaks in the Xfinity Series at Daytona, Haley admitted that he wasn’t sure if his chance for redemption at the World Center of Racing would ever come.
Sunday afternoon, he got that chance and so much more.
“Man, I wasn’t even sure if I would ever get to race in the Cup Series, much less win here,” said Haley. “The stars just aligned for us … and even then, I didn’t ever think I was going to get redemption back from a few years back in Daytona, and then last year when I got the Xfinity win taken away from me. So, to come back and get redemption in the Cup Series is pretty cool. … I’ve never been too lucky at Daytona, as we’ve all seen. This place owed me one.
“It sure makes that second place finish with Kaulig on Friday feel a whole lot better right now.”
Though Sunday was a banner moment for Haley, he noted he’s not in any hurry to make a dramatic jump to the Cup Series. Right now, he wants to go back to his Kaulig team and chase a title with them.
“This is my last planned start,” Haley confirmed. “I’m focused on the Xfinity side of things, and we’re in a pretty good spot right now. We’ll keep digging next week and it’ll be business as usual as far as that goes.
“To celebrate tonight though … it’s a cool moment, for sure. This is one that I’ll never forget.”