Last December Justin Haley sat in the back of the room at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East banquet with what he cracked was his “participation trophy” for finishing sixth in points.
Haley watched as William Byron enjoyed all the perks of being the champion. Then he turned to his family.
“I said, ‘You know, that’d be cool to be up there,’ and they told me we’d get it this year,” Haley told NBC Sports during a champion’s outing at GoPro Motorplex on Thursday. “I guess I get to experience it now and see what it’s like.”
Haley will be formally honored Saturday at the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards. He’s looking forward to going from the back of the room to the spotlight at the front. It will be a nice feeling to be recognized and know his face will be the one on the screen all those in attendance will be looking at.
There’s just one thing about Saturday night Haley is not looking forward.
“The speech is low on my list,” he said with a laugh.
Speaking in front of the room filled with champions and competitors from the NASCAR K&N West Series, Pinty’s Series, Whelen Euro Series, as well as the Whelen Modified and Southern Modified Tour, might be the only thing that trips Haley up this season.
He made winning his first championship look easy with 14 top-10 finishes in 14 races. He finished no worse than ninth in those 14 races and had two victories and three poles. His average finish was 3.4.
It’s worth noting that 2016 was just his second full-time season and he entered it still looking for his first career win. Haley lets out a laugh of disbelief when talking about his statistics.
“We had 14 races and 13 top fives, which was incredible,” Haley said. “The other race we finished ninth in, which we were running third at Mobile (International Speedway) and it was my fault because I jumped a restart, so we should have 14 top fives. But it’s incredible because it goes to show HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks gave me a fast car but also a reliable car.”
There was also the luck factor, Haley admitted. His No. 5 Chevrolet wasn’t one to find trouble through cut tires or mechanical failures. He also led a total of 216 laps on the year.
“We had tons of luck on our side, which is great,” Haley said. “A season like that doesn’t come often. But I was just super thankful when I saw (my numbers) and just to have all that luck – it was really a season that you don’t come by very often, and I was lucky to just put my name on the map a little bit more.”
Since winning the championship at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30, Haley has enjoyed all the obligations that come with his accomplishment, as well as the various Twitter notifications, which he called “pretty exciting.” The night prior the karting outing at GoPro Motorplex, Haley and his fellow Touring and Weekly Series champions were welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame where they had dinner and placed their names in the Whelen Hall of Champions.
Haley also recently celebrated in the Bahamas by going on a cruise with his team. Each experience has been thrilling for the 17-year-old. But it all leads to the hardest part yet.
“It’s been done for a while,” Haley said of his banquet speech. “We’ll practice it a few more times. It’s definitely going to be – we’ll see how many times I can stumble.”