DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Consistency was the name of the game for Justin Haley during his march to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship this season.
Haley, from Winamac, Indiana, had a 3.4 average finish during the 14-race season that started on Feb. 14 at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway and ended Sept. 30 at Delaware’s Dover International Speedway.
The second-year driver earned 13 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes during the 14-race season along with two victories during his championship run. It was like Haley found a groove and never lost it.
In fact, that’s exactly how Haley described it.
“It was like we got in a groove and couldn’t get out of it,” Haley said when looking back on his championship year aboard the No. 5 Off Axis Paint Chevrolet. “It was kind of like we couldn’t do anything wrong. It was a pretty good groove.”
After a fifth-place finish at New Smyrna Haley finished ninth at Alabama’s Mobile Int’l Speedway, his worst finish of the 2016 campaign. Haley rebounded by picking up his first victory of the year at South Carolina’s Greenville Pickens Speedway on March 26.
A fourth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway followed by a runner-up result on the road course New Jersey Motorsports Park moved Haley into the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship lead, a position he never lost for the remainder of the year.
“The consistency just kept being there,” Haley said. “Kyle Benjamin, the other points racer, just kept having bad week after bad week. So we just stayed on the lucky side. We were really consistent and fast and it all just kind of fell into our hands.”
While Haley certainly deserves some of the credit for his consistent approach to capturing the championship, he was quick to give credit to his crew chief at HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, Shannon Rursch.
“Fourteen races ago, which was the start at New Smyrna, he had never even worked on a K&N car,” said the 17-year-old driver. “He was a new face to the K&N series. I wanted him over there. I worked with him late in the year in 2015 in the Trucks, so having him come over, he just had so much confidence in me and going to the race track with that much confidence from your crew chief is key to someone like me.
“Just having him sitting there pounding into my head that we’re going to win, we’re going to do this, that helped a ton.”
Haley ended the year with two victories on his resume, picking up trophies at Greenville Pickens and at Ohio’s Columbus Motor Speedway. He said each victory was special to him, but for very different reasons.
“Greenville was kind of bittersweet because in 2015 after the East season ended we went out West and dominated the race at Phoenix,” said Haley. “We had like a 12 second lead and had led every single lap that night and with four to go we had a rivet get caught in the right-front and that basically took the race away from us. So to win at Greenville the season after having something taken away from me that I knew I had won, it was a good personal motivator for me and the team.”
The triumph at Columbus, which closed down after the 2016 season after nearly 70 years in operation, was important to Haley because he grew up racing at the third-mile oval.
“We went to Columbus and that is kind of my home track. I grew up racing late models at Columbus, so to get the final victory there in K&N East at Columbus, that was pretty cool,” Haley said.
With the championship in his back pocket, Haley has turned his attention to the future. He recently announced plans to step up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with reigning series champions GMS Racing.
It’s an opportunity that Haley, who has made six career Truck Series starts, knows could catapult his career to new heights.
“I’m pumped. There is no other team I’d rather be with than GMS Racing,” Haley said. “It’s cool to go over there to GMS and see what they’re doing and see all the technology.
“It’s kind of cool to move up the ladder. I’m very thankful I got the opportunity. I’m just trying to enjoy it and take it all in. It’s definitely cool to be in such great Truck equipment and have this kind of opportunity.”