Justin Haley won the Karma 317 at Daytona International Speedway.
In just his third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, the 20-year-old Winamac, Indiana, native enjoyed a bit of redemption after losing the Xfinity Series race on the 2.5-mile track on a penalty one year ago. Haley dipped below the yellow line to improve his position coming the checkered flag in last July’s Coca-Cola Firecracker 250. Despite crossing the finish line first, he was demoted to18th for the infraction.
With a little help from Mother Nature, the racing gods evened the score on Sunday.
“It’s just unreal,” Haley said. “I don’t even know how to feel. It’s absolutely incredible to be given the opportunity to race on this level. It has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point and a lot of faith put in me by a lot of awesome supporters. To get to this point is absolutely incredible.”
William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon, Ryan Newman, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Matt Tifft and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.
NASCAR battled the weather all weekend. After the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was postponed from Saturday night, the sanctioning body made every effort to start the race within the bounds of the window NBC set forth for the broadcast. While the first stage went off without a hitch—with pole winner Joey Logano taking the green-white-checkered flag after 50 laps—the second caution came 10 laps later following contact between Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Busch was also involved in the second accident. After glancing off the wall, he then made contact with Brendan Gaughan in Turn 3 on Lap 75 and was forced to pit for repairs to the right front of the car. Karma struck again on Lap 83 after Kevin Harvick ran into the back of Brad Keselowski’s Ford on the front stretch. Keselowski, who refused to lift when William Byron pulled in front of him in practice, lost control of his car following contact from the No. 4 Ford. Daniel Suarez, David Ragan, Daniel Hemric and Joey Logano were also involved in the incident.
“I was going straight one moment and the next moment I wasn’t,” Keselowski said. “It’s unfortunate. We were all two and three-wide racing and just got tagged from the back. I’m not sure exactly. I know we got to three-wide at the top of three and it looks like Kevin gave me a real straight push. It just took off on me.”
Austin Dillon continued to lead the field and held the point with three laps remaining in the stage. Clint Bowyer led one lap before Dillon jockeyed back to the lead to win the second stage at Lap 100.
But Dillon’s luck ran out 19 laps later. He attempted to block Bowyer and triggered an 18-car pile-up in Turn 1 for the sixth caution of the race.
“I thought me and the 9 (Chase Elliott) would be able to get by the 11 (Denny Hamlin) but the 9 wasn’t clear,” Dillon said. “I really thought it was urgent with the lightning and the rain coming, so I just up there. Had a good push from the 14 (Bowyer) and my plan as soon as I cleared the 11 was to cut left and get down with my Chevy teammates.
“It’s really unfortunate because I had a really fast American Ethanol Chevy. Just trying to get a race win. That is all it is.”
Kurt Busch assumed the lead. However, after the race director called for one lap to go prior to returning to green, the No. 1 Ganassi Racing team elected to pit and top off with fuel.
Haley’s crew chief Peter Sospenzo directed Haley to remain on the track when the other cars ahead of the No. 77 Spire Chevy also came in for service.
“My thought process was even if we had four flat tires, we weren't going to pit,” Sospenzo said after his fourth-career win. “We were going to ride it out and hope that we get something with the weather in our favor. It was more lightning than actual rain at that point in time, but I know you get 30 minutes every time you get a lightning strike within seven, eight miles, whatever it is. It was our only option to try and steal a win, if you want to call it, but there was no way we were coming in.
“I was actually surprised that a couple of guys in front of us pitted in front of us.
But my mind was made up—really my mind was made up when we got back on the lead lap and noticed that the rain was coming, and I said to myself then, if we get in a position, I'm not going to pit, I don't care what happens. And it just worked out that way.”
With lightning in the area, NASCAR was forced to delay the restart. Then the skies opened with Haley in the lead. After rain soaked the track, officials called the race and awarded Haley the win.
For Busch, his 10th top-10 finish of the season was bittersweet.
“I feel like we were in a really good position to win the race and it’s just a matter of when the one random lightning bolt comes down to decide when you make the call,” Busch said. “I think we did pretty good to finish tenth considering everything that went on.”