In an upset of practically unprecedented proportions, Justin Haley, with help from crew chief Peter Sospenzo and Mother Nature, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) race in Sunday’s rain-delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Haley, in just his third start in NASCAR’s premier division, drove a smart, patient race while positioning himself to make a run toward the front of the field as the laps wound down in the scheduled 160-lap race.
When a Lap 118 multi-car incident slowed the field and sent many of the day’s contenders to the garage area early, Haley steered his No. 77 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet Camaro clear of the carnage, launching a sequence of events that propelled the 20-year-old driver to Victory Lane at the “World Center of Racing.”
“It's absolutely a blessing,” said Haley. “It’s pretty incredible that I have so many great people around me who have given me this opportunity to come here, to this level and stage, that we are performing on. Obviously, Todd (Braun - Haley’s uncle and former NASCAR team owner) and my family have done a great job, but the Fraternal Order of Eagles has given me this opportunity with Spire Motorsports and it’s truly a blessing. I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega. It's just unreal and I don't know how to put it. I don't know how to feel.”
Haley started NASCAR’s traditional Fourth of July Weekend 400-miler from deep in the field, with a pre-determined strategy to log miles, stay out of harm’s way and avoid the always imminent “big one.” With veteran NASCAR top kick Peter Sospenzo calling the shots from pit road, Haley clicked off laps and eventually raced himself into position to make meaningful forward progress.
By the start of the race’s third and final stage, and with the team’s plan beginning to take shape, Haley made the most of his opportunity and when the smoke cleared from the Lap 118 free-for-all, the three-time NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series winner was suddenly in contention for the win.
As NASCAR gave the field the one-lap-to-go signal following the incident and the leaders headed down pit road, Sospenzo cast his lot and ordered his driver to stay on the track in hopes of outmaneuvering the competition. His plan came to fruition less than a half-lap later when lightning struck within eight miles of Daytona International Speedway, forcing NASCAR to red flag the race with Haley’s No. 77 Chevy atop the scoring pylon.
Over the next two hours and 12 minutes, Haley waited for the looming rain to settle in once and for all to seal the win or to return to his car and finish the final 33 laps.
After the extended red flag, that included a lengthy period where it looked like the weather would clear, the approaching storms rolled into Daytona Beach for good. With two of three stages complete, NASCAR declared the race official, affording Haley and Spire Motorsports owners T.J. Puchyr and Jeff Dickerson with their collective crowning achievements.
“The stars aligned and I didn't ever think I was going to get redemption back from a few years back in Daytona, and last year when I got the Xfinity win taken away from me,” said Haley of the win and his previous outings at Daytona. “So, to come back and get redemption in the Cup Series is pretty cool and makes that second-place finish with Kaulig Racing last Friday a lot better.”
Spire Motorsports was founded in 2018 by co-owners T.J. Puchyr and Jeff Dickerson and has competed in every MENCS race this season. Haley’s win marked the team’s first checkered flag in 18 races and the first for Sospenzo since May 2003.
“It's obviously a huge, huge moment to win in the pinnacle of our sport at Daytona, no less,” commented Puchyr. “This is it, right? This is the World Center of Racing… Jeff Dickerson and I said we believe in the sport. We believe in the platform that NASCAR provides. This is the American dream. I've been coming here sitting on that lawn since I was 10 years old, saying one day we're going to do this.
“It's not lost on me that luck was on our side today. But I'm not going to feel bad about it at all. I'm going to love it. We're just going to continue to be the Little Engine That Could and build this thing as best we can and go from here.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Bluegrass State next weekend where rookie Quin Houff will return to the seat of Spire Motorsports No. 77 entry.
The Quaker State 400 from Kentucky Speedway will be televised live on NBCSN Saturday, July 13 beginning at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The 19th of 36 races on the 2019 MENCS schedule will be broadcast live on the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Spire Motorsports PR