Justin Haley earned his first NASCAR Cup Series win in just his third career start by winning the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
The race was delayed a day due to rain, which had interfered with practice and qualifying all week.
Busch Pits Just Before Lightning Hits
The weather also impacted the race itself. Scheduled for 160 laps, the contest was stopped 33 laps early because of lightning. Two hours later, officials made the determination that the race was finished, and with Haley in the lead, he had his first ever victory on the circuit.
The victory made the 20 year-old Haley the second-youngest Cup Series winner in Daytona history. The stoppage came at an opportune time for Haley, who admitted that his car was not going to be able to stay up front had the contest continued.
“I had no expectation to win this race,” he told reporters. “We were just trying to keep the fenders on it. That was the whole goal of the race, to finish with no scratches. Yes, I really did pray for rain.”
The unusual finish occurred as a series of weather changes caused chaos around the end of the race.
Kurt Busch was actually leading the field when a yellow flag caution occurred. With a one-lap-to-go signal given for a restart, Busch made the decision to pit, after previously having tried to avoid doing so because of the encroaching weather.
But NASCAR then decided to keep the yellow flag out because of concerns about the weather. Busch reentered the field in 10th place, and minutes later, the red flag was given, sending everyone to pit road. Busch would never get another opportunity to make up that ground.
Haley Team Takes Advantage of Weather
On the other hand, Haley’s crew chief, Peter Sospenzo, decided that they would take their chances and take full advantage of a stoppage if and when it came.
“My thought process was even if we have four flat tires we weren’t going to pit,” Sospenzo said after the race. “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.”
The end result was a great day at the track for Chevrolet. Chevy took the top four positions in the race, with William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, and Ty Dillon finishing right behind Haley. Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.
The win finished off a big weekend for Haley, who also finished second in the Xfinity Series race on Friday night. Haley drives full-time on the second-tier NASCAR series, and his win might not be enough to earn a spot in the Cup Series playoffs: he’ll need to finish in the top 30 in the driver standings for his win to give him priority over non-winners for one of the 16 postseason positions. Haley isn’t currently listed in the Cup Series standings, and stands ninth in the Xfinity driver rankings.
The results of the weather-impacted race haven’t done much to impact NASCAR’s championship odds. According to bookmaker Paddy Power, Kyle Busch (5/2) is the favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship this year, ahead of Martin Truex Jr. (4/1), Kevin Harvick (6/1), and Joey Logano (6/1).