As the dark clouds and lightning descended upon Daytona International Speedway Sunday afternoon, Justin Haley climbed out of his No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet feeling like it was perhaps divine intervention. He was first on the scoreboard at the time Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 was red-flagged for lightning 33 laps short of the intended 160-lap distance.
Two hours and 12 minutes later, the 20-year old Indiana native was celebrating his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup win – in only his third career start. It was an unlikely turn of events in a very eventful race.
As Haley stood speaking with reporters during the long weather delay, a team member walked up and hugged him, delivering the career-defining news to the Xfinity Series standout, “You just won your first Monster Energy NASCAR race.”
“It’s absolutely a blessing, pretty incredible that I have so many people around me who have given me this opportunity," Haley said, just before receiving a hug from his mother Melissa Dennis.
“I knew eventually we’d be standing there and celebrating a win but I was definitely not prepared on his third Cup start to be here and experience this," Dennis said, beaming with pride and conceding she nervously spent the red flag downtime cleaning the family’s motor coach just to keep her mind busy.
As Haley – the second youngest Cup winner in Daytona International Speedway history - stood inside the driver meeting room during the weather delay, he smiled nervously and showed reporters how his hands were shaking in tense anticipation.
Drivers were actually called to their cars to restart after the initial red flag, but lightning moved into the immediate area again - necessitating another 30-minute safety delay. Before that time passed, the rain came again. And the race was declared official.
In the end, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson finished second and third. And Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five.
As elated as Haley was by the unforeseen circumstances, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch was equally as gutted. He had been leading the race during the yellow flag caution period immediately preceding the red flag stoppage. He had opted not to pit initially with the poor weather approaching, but when given the one-to-go signal prior to the restart Busch zipped down pit road for a last minute fill-up.
Unfortunately for him, however, the weather conditions changed so quickly that by the time the field was on the backstretch, NASCAR decided to keep the yellow caution flag flying instead of dropping the green flag to race again. Within minutes, the red flag came out, and teams were ordered to pit road, their cars covered with the bad weather approaching. Busch had rejoined the field in 10th place – his ultimate finishing position.
That was only one chapter of the race’s fully dramatic story.
The who-and-when of pit stops became especially strategic after a caution flag on lap 120 of the scheduled 160-lapper. The “Big One,” as multi-car accidents are called on the Daytona high banks, occurred when the frontrunning cars of Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer touched at high speed in Turn 1. In all 18 cars were collected – most of them considered pre-race favorites such as polesitter Joey Logano, Hendrick Motorsports cars Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and defending race winner Erik Jones.
Asked what happened, Bowyer said in his typically candid fashion, “I guess he didn’t want me to pass him.
“I don’t know," Bowyer said of Dillon. “I got under him and he blocked and we got together, I got off of him, moved down and got off of him – and here he comes back down even more and just finally wrecked us all."
Even though their competitive hopes were finished in that accident, Logano (41 laps) and Dillon (46 lap) led the most laps on the afternoon. The time up front was especially impressive for the polesitter and Stage 1 winner Logano, who was involved in two accidents to varying degrees. But he still rallied to finish 25th.
As the series heads to Kentucky Speedway next week, Logano still maintains an 18-point lead over 14th place finisher Kyle Busch in the Cup championship standings.
The first major incident of the afternoon ironically involved one of the two cars also part of the only practice wreck leading into the race. Only this time, it was Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford that got the rough end of contact.
On Lap 83, his Ford was hit from behind by fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford sending Keselowski hard into the high side wall and multiple cars spinning off track in reaction. Ultimately Keselowski retired his car, Harvick returned after multiple pit stops to repair damage as did his SHR teammate Daniel Suarez, who spun off the track with Richard Childress Racing rookie Daniel Hemric – the lone Chevy involved in the incident.
Shortly after the dark skies started creeping in and the race intensity increased accordingly.
All the teams were keeping an eye on the sky and Haley’s veteran crew chief Peter Sospenzo conceded that the game plan was absolutely to keep Haley on track not stopping in the pits.
“My thought process was even if we had four flat tires we weren’t going to pit," Sospenzo said. “We were going to ride out the weather. It was our only option to steal a win, if you want to call it that. We were not going to come in and I was actually a little surprised a couple guys in front of us did.
“We just wanted to have a decent finish," he added, “not get caught up in any wrecks and it just worked out."