DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A game-changing crash on lap 118 of Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway paved the way for multiple drivers to earn career-best finishes in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In fact, five of the top nine at the checkered flag reset their high-water marks in NASCAR’s premier series.
After 17 drivers in the lead pack were collected in a heap of twisted metal in turn one, several underdog teams climbed rapidly up the running order, led by eventual race winner Justin Haley – who was 27th before the incident but was shuffled to the front thanks to pit stops and eventually took the trophy.
Lightning and rain led to a two-hour stoppage and eventually forced NASCAR officials to call the race complete after 127 of a scheduled 160 laps had been run.
Haley’s win was the first of his Cup Series career in just his third top-level start.
“Strategically today, I was just riding around, and I would have been really happy with a lead‑lap finish,” admitted Haley. “This was only my third Cup start ever, so there was no expectation to win. (Winning) wasn’t even a thought in my mind.
“I was really focused on the Xfinity race. When I finished second in that to Ross, it was a bummer, but I was happy for everyone at Kaulig Racing,” he added. “But to come over here to Spire Motorsports and do something pretty special with a new team … that’s definitely unbelievable. Words can’t describe it.”
Haley wasn’t the only driver to benefit, however. William Byron skated through the chaos in his backup No. 24 Axalta Patriotic Chevrolet and ended up finishing second, his best run in 54 Cup Series starts.
Sunday’s race marked the first top-five finish for Byron, who has three poles already this season.
“Today was really successful for us. All of the Chevrolets worked really well together, and I feel like that’s what got us to a second-place finish,” noted Byron. “It would have been cool to win, for sure, but it would have been a really weird way to win. Overall, 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.”
Despite two stage wins so far, Ty Dillon’s fourth-place effort in the No. 13 GEICO Military Chevrolet was his highest finish in six years at the Cup level and his second top-10 finish of the year.
“We didn’t have a chance to race for the win, but this was a first top-five and best finish ever and I’m pretty pleased with that,” said Dillon. “I’m thrilled for our Germain Racing team. It’s a nice little shot in the arm for our team to get the second half of the season going.”
Corey LaJoie has bettered his Cup Series career best twice this season. After a 12th-place run at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway in May, LaJoie finished sixth on Sunday – his first top-10 finish.
The effort also marks the best-ever finish for Go Fas Racing and team owner Archie St. Hilaire.
“Sixth for us, no matter what the circumstance, is a good day,” LaJoie pointed out. “If you told me I could take a sixth-place finish before we even started, I would have taken it to the bank and ran with it. That’s cool for Justin, too. That’s obviously not how he wanted to win his first race, but at the end of the day, there’s no asterisk in the record book and there’s no asterisk in there for running sixth, either.”
Finally, three years after brain surgery to remove a benign tumor, Ohio’s Matt Tifft secured the first top 10 of his rookie Cup Series season, coming home ninth for Front Row Motorsports in the No. 36 Ford.
Tifft survived the chaos where teammates David Ragan and Michael McDowell could not. Ragan was involved in a crash before the end of stage two that ended his day, while McDowell was among those who pitted just before the lightning – and later rain – ultimately squelched hopes of resuming the race.
“Honestly for us, it doesn’t matter how we got it; a top 10 is huge for our team and for Front Row Motorsports, any top 10 is awesome,” said Tifft. “It’s definitely one we’ll celebrate here and a ninth-place finish for our team is pretty incredible.
“We put ourselves in spots through the race to make sure we were not getting caught up in the big ones and it worked out for us to get a good finish out of it.”