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Indiana Dirt Racer Cleans Up In Daytona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 8 2019
Justin Haley, right, is congratulated after winning Sunday’s rain-shortened Cup Series race at Daytona. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Haley’s description of himself is pretty simple – “just a dirt track racer from Indiana.” However, he can now add the phrase: Who has won at Daytona in NASCAR’s Cup Series.

Haley’s surprise victory Sunday in the rain-delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 came in just his third start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and with Spire Motorsports, a team that didn’t obtain its charter until after last year’s season finale. The victory made Haley the youngest driver to ever win Daytona’s July Cup race and the second youngest to ever win at the 2.5-mile track. He also became the 20th different driver to win his first Cup race at Daytona and the 10th to accomplish the feat in the July event.

“I’m pretty comfortable superspeedway racing,” Haley said. “You would think at Daytona you would just be wide open, but we were lifting all the way out of the gas in the center of the corners to keep them underneath us. They were super, super wild to drive; scary at some points, and especially when you’re three wide.” 

 Haley’s victory occurred due to a series of events in which the 20-year-old competitor was consistently in the right place at the right time. 

 First, he was running 27th when the 18-car pileup occurred on lap 119 of the 160-lap race.

“The whole goal today and the strategy was to keep far enough back from the pack that I wouldn’t get into any incidents but to stay close enough to it that I wouldn’t lose the draft and go multiple laps down. We went a lap down early and we got it back. 

“I was just far enough back that I could avoid that wreck, but close enough that I could keep in the draft. We were just strategy-racing to finish the race.”

  Several cars pitted during that caution period leaving Haley in second behind Kurt Busch. Crew chief Matt McCall told Busch that when NASCAR gave the one-to-go signal he was to pit. NASCAR gave the signal on lap 127 and Busch pitted, leaving Haley in the lead.

“Even if we had four flat tires, we weren’t going to pit,” crew chief Peter Sospenzo said. “We were going to ride it out and hope that we get something with the weather in our favor. It was more lightning than it was actually rain at that point in time, but I know you get 30 minutes every time you get a lightning strike within seven, eight miles. It was our only option to try and steal a win.” 

With the caution vehicle leading the field down the backstretch, a lightning strike occurred 7.4 miles from the 2.5-mile track. 

“It’s just a matter of when the one random lightning bolt comes down to decide when you make the call,” said Busch, who finished 10th. “It was a judgment call on their (NASCAR) part.

“We said it (when we were pitting) on our radio. NASCAR scanned it, so maybe we shouldn’t have said it on our radio. So we’ll see what we can do different next time.”

Rain came soon after two lightning strikes. Finally, after a 2-hour 12-minute delay, NASCAR called the race official and declared Haley the winner, 33 laps shy of the scheduled distance.

 During the rain delay, Haley was interviewed in the drivers’ meeting room and showed the media how his hand was shaking. He also admitted his teeth were chattering and his stomach was “a little turned over.”

 When the announcement came that Haley was the winner, it was as if the 20-year-old from Winamac, Ind., was still in disbelief. First his uncle Todd Braun gave him a congratulatory hug and then his mother, Melissa Dennis, came running into the room and hugged her son.

“I was definitely not prepared (for this win) on his third Cup start,” Dennis said with a smile. “I went to the (motor) coach and started cleaning. The more I thought about it the more the rain stopped. So I just separated myself from what was going on outside. Every lightning strike there was another update. Every raindrop was getting bigger. We just watched and prayed. Thankfully, I think the power of prayer brought us here.

“We’re definitely ready to go home and celebrate. He’s worked so hard for this day. I didn’t think he would get a Cup win before he got an Xfinity win, but I knew that he was going to get both eventually in his career. He’s a determined young man and I’m so proud of him. 

“My 9-year-old is supposed to be at a swim party getting a participation trophy and now we’re taking a Daytona trophy home. I don’t think it will hit me until he brings that trophy and sets it on my dining room table where it will live for the next couple of months. That’s our tradition. It’s mine for a while.” 

Dennis cited the defining moment when she knew her son was “going to make it” in the profession was when he won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2016. 

 Not only was the victory special to Haley and his family, but to Sospenzo as well. For Sospenzo, who began working in the sport in 1979, it was his first team victory since Joe Nemechek won for Hendrick Motorsports in a rain-shortened event. That was in 2003.

“It’s almost surreal right now that we even won the race,” Sospenzo said. “Where we’re working now, you’ve got to multitask. You’ve got to do 10, 15 jobs because we don’t have the people. We don’t have the resources. But there are a couple of opportunities during the year that we get a chance to maybe, maybe do this right here.” 

When Haley decided to make racing his profession he had to be home schooled because he traveled so much. Then his family moved from Indiana to North Carolina to “help me chase my dream” when he started competing in the K&N East Series with Harry Scott and Justin Marks. 

“Like I said, without them (family), this wouldn’t be possible,” Haley said.  

Not bad for “just a dirt track racer from Indiana.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race – Coke Zero Sugar 400
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Sunday, July 7, 2019

                1. (34)  Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 127.

                2. (12)  William Byron, Chevrolet, 127.

                3. (14)  Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 127.

                4. (23)  Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 127.

                5. (18)  Ryan Newman, Ford, 127.

                6. (30)  Corey LaJoie, Ford, 127.

                7. (11)  Aric Almirola, Ford, 127.

                8. (25)  Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 127.

                9. (31)  Matt Tifft #, Ford, 127.

                10. (8)  Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 127.

                11. (33)  Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 127.

                12. (37)  JJ Yeley, Ford, 127.

                13. (28)  Michael McDowell, Ford, 127.

                14. (2)  Kyle Busch, Toyota, 127.

                15. (29)  Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 127.

                16. (20)  Paul Menard, Ford, 127.

                17. (22)  Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 127.

                18. (24)  Daniel Hemric #, Chevrolet, 127.

                19. (39)  Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 126.

                20. (13)  Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 126.

                21. (9)  Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 126.

                22. (5)  Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 126.

                23. (17)  Erik Jones, Toyota, 125.

                24. (19)  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 125.

                25. (1)  Joey Logano, Ford, 125.

                26. (6)  Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 125.

                27. (40)  Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 125.

                28. (35)  BJ McLeod(i), Ford, 124.

                29. (4)  Kevin Harvick, Ford, 124.

                30. (38)  Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 122.

                31. (36)  Parker Kligerman(i), Toyota, Accident, 121.

                32. (26)  Ryan Preece #, Chevrolet, Accident, 119.

                33. (21)  Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 118.

                34. (16)  Clint Bowyer, Ford, Accident, 118.

                35. (7)  Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, Accident, 118.

                36. (10)  Ryan Blaney, Ford, Accident, 118.

                37. (32)  Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 108.

                38. (27)  David Ragan, Ford, Accident, 86.

                39. (3)  Brad Keselowski, Ford, Accident, 85.

                40. (15)  Daniel Suarez, Ford, Accident, 83.

Average Speed of Race Winner:  141.146 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 14 Mins, 58 Secs. Margin of Victory:  Under Caution Seconds.

Caution Flags:  6 for 25 laps.

Lead Changes:  24 among 14 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   J. Logano 1;K. Busch 2;J. Logano 3-35;K. Busch 36-37;K. Harvick 38-49;J. Logano 50-51;R. Preece # 52;C. Elliott 53-55;R. Stenhouse Jr. 56-57;A. Dillon 58-60;C. Bowyer 61-62;A. Dillon 63;R. Blaney 64;A. Dillon 65-96;C. Bowyer 97;A. Dillon 98-102;C. Buescher 103;J. Logano 104-105;A. Dillon 106-109;J. Logano 110-111;P. Menard 112;D. Hamlin 113-117;A. Dillon 118;K. Busch 119-126;J. Haley(i) 127.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Austin Dillon 6 times for 46 laps; Joey Logano 5 times for 40 laps; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 12 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 8 laps; Denny Hamlin 1 time for 5 laps; Clint Bowyer 2 times for 3 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 3 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 3 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1 time for 2 laps; Ryan Blaney 1 time for 1 lap; Paul Menard 1 time for 1 lap; Chris Buescher 1 time for 1 lap; Ryan Preece # 1 time for 1 lap; Justin Haley(i) 1 time for 1 lap.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 8 2019
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