By Rick Minter / Andrews McMeel Syndication
Sunday’s rain-delayed, rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway ended with the unlikeliest of winners — 20-year-old Justin Haley, an Xfinity Series driver making just his third start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and driving for a No. 77 Spire Motorsports team that operates on a shoestring budget compared to the top teams in the circuit.
Haley inherited the lead late in the 400, which was scheduled to be run Saturday night but was pushed to Sunday because of rain, just after an 18-car crash on Lap 120 that eliminated many of the top teams and drivers.
As the drivers still in the race circled the track under caution, NASCAR officials informed teams that the green flag would be displayed one lap later.
Race leader Kurt Busch led a parade of drivers down pit road for fresh tires and fuel, but Haley stayed on the track, taking the lead and hoping that for some reason the race would not be restarted.
Haley got his wish in the form of a lightning strike seven miles from the track, which led to a 30-minute delay as per NASCAR’s weather procedures.
After two hours of delays due to lightning, rain, more lightning and more rain, NASCAR ended the race at that point with Haley, who was running 27th prior to the multi-car crash, scoring one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history.
Haley, who led only the 127th and final lap, is the 20th driver to get his first Cup win at Daytona, and the 10th to do so in the July race. He’s also the track’s second-youngest Cup winner at 20 years, 2 months and 9 days.
Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 when he was 20 years and 1 day old.
Completing the top five on Sunday were William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman.
Haley, from Winamac, Indiana, was running the 400 mostly to gain experience and wound up seeing a racing dream come true.
“It’s absolutely a blessing,” said Haley, who finished second in Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Daytona and crossed the finish line first in Xfinity a year ago, but was penalized for going below the double yellow line. “It’s pretty incredible that I have so many great people around me that have given me this opportunity to come to this level and the stage that we’re performing on. …
“I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega, and it’s just unreal. I don’t know how to feel.”
Haley’s crew chief, the veteran Peter Sospenzo, said his strategy of staying on the track during the final caution period wasn’t much of a gamble because his team didn’t have a chance to win otherwise.
“My thought process was even if we had four flat tires we weren’t going to pit,” said Sospenzo, who hadn’t won a Cup race since 2003 in a rain-shortened race at Richmond with Joe Nemechek as his driver. “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, not get caught up in any wrecks, and it just worked out.”
The multi-car crash that put into play the series of events that led to Haley’s win began when Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer wrecked at the head of the lead pack.
Bowyer blamed Dillon for a failed attempt to block him.
“I guess he didn’t want me to pass him,” Bowyer said. “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.”
Dillon explained his aggressive driving by saying he knew the race wouldn’t run to the advertised distance.
“We lost the lead, and I really felt it was kind of urgent to get back into the lead because of the lightning and rain coming,” he said. “I got turned a little bit left and then it shot me down left. It’s just part of this kind of racing.”
Among the more interesting comments on social media about Haley’s win was one from fellow driver Daniel Hemric, who visited with Haley and his family in Hemric’s motorcoach at Daytona the night before the race.
“[Haley] told me he felt like the world of racing is stacked against him,” Hemric wrote on Twitter. “I wonder how he feels about that now??”
PHOTO CAPTION: This 18-car crash on Lap 120 of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was triggered when Austin Dillon, in the No. 3 Chevrolet, and Clint Bowyer, in the No. 14 Ford, collided while racing for the lead. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR