Long: How signs pointed toward Justin Haley’s shocking Daytona victory

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This wasn’t supposed to happen. There’s no way this little team could prevail at such a prestigious track that has celebrated the sport’s giants. And this driver? Well, he’d already had a win, at least in his mind, taken away here. So as he held the lead during a delay for lightning and then rain, surely series officials would wait for the weather to clear and run the final 33 laps, especially with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson lurking in third place.

Yes, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

But the signs told Melissa Dennis that her 20-year-old son, Justin Haley, would win his first Cup race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. No matter how much she tried, the signs kept pointing to one of the more unlikely victories in recent NASCAR history.

When the race began, Dennis couldn’t get her son’s radio channel on her headphones. Instead, she heard Seals & Crofts’ iconic song “Summer Breeze.”

The smooth melody and lyrics sent Dennis back to her childhood. Her family often heard that song when they spent summer days at an Indiana lake. When Dennis’ mother, Linda Braun, died in 2008, the family was asked to select a song to play at the service. They chose “Summer Breeze” for those memories on the lake.

When Dennis heard the song in her headphones Sunday, her first thoughts were “Are you kidding me mom? Why are you popping up today?”

Dennis said her son’s life changed the day after Linda Braun’s funeral. Haley, who was 9 years old, saw a quarter midget hanging from a family member’s barn and wanted to drive it.

“We pulled it down, let him drive it around the subdivision and couldn’t get him out of it,” Haley’s uncle, Drew Braun said.

After driving the quarter midget, he didn’t have to work hard to convince his mother and stepfather to let him race. His first quarter midget was not a thing of beauty, down to his black spray paint job on the car, but he had fun.

Justin Haley and Jimmie Johnson chat during the weather delay at Daytona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

A year later, Haley’s family put him in a faster quarter midget and Dennis said her son “got scared.”

The family huddled.

“We said … we’re either going to go out and really try hard, or we’re just going to go have fun,” Dennis said Haley was told.

“I want to have a career,” Haley said of racing.

Soon, the family was spending more than 40 weekends a year taking him to races.

“We devoted every spare second we had to making sure he was on track,” Dennis said.

Haley moved to North Carolina with his stepfather in 2015 when he ran the K&N Pro Series East Series full-time. His mother and siblings stayed in Indiana. That arrangement lasted less than a year before the family reunited in North Carolina.

“Justin needed to have a family,” Dennis said of joining her son.

The following season, Haley won the K&N Pro Series East championship. He moved to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2017. Haley won three races in 2018 and finished third in the points.

That year also saw him run three Xfinity races, most notably the July event at Daytona. Haley charged under Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler coming to the checkered flag to cross the finish line first, but NASCAR penalized Haley for going below the double yellow line to make the move. Larson was declared the winner. Haley said at the time it was a “pretty BS call.”

Haley has never watched that race. And he does not intend to do so.

But his family sees that finish differently.

“Last year, we thought dad was the reason he didn’t win,” Braun said, “because we figured dad pushed him below the yellow line, saying, “Hey, this is going to help your career more than if your won the race,’ which we believe it did because it gave him a lot of notoriety by that mistake that he really wouldn’t have got. People have talked about that for a long time. In a lot of ways, it was better.”

Ross Chastain congratulates Justin Haley after Haley’s victory. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Haley, a rookie in Xfinity this season, came close to redemption Friday, finishing second to teammate Ross Chastain.

While Haley’s focus has been on the Xfinity ride, Sunday marked his third Cup start for Spire Motorsports.

His Cup debut came in April at Talladega. He failed to finish because of a crash.

It was with that race in mind that Haley’s focus Sunday was to make sure not to damage the car for the small team.

“Strategically today, I was just riding around,” Haley said, “and I would have been really happy with a lead‑lap finish.”

He rode in 27th when the leaders crashed, triggering an 18-car melee that he drove through.

“I was ahead of (Haley) going through the wreck, and I must have slowed down too much because the sucker passed me,” Corey LaJoie said with a smile after his career-best sixth-place finish.

Haley was seventh when the caution waved. He moved to third when those in front, including Johnson and William Byron pitted. That put Haley behind Kurt Busch and Landon Cassill. When NASCAR stated it would go to green on the next lap, Busch and Cassill pitted, giving Haley the lead.

Lightning was recorded within an 8-mile radius of the track and NASCAR stopped the race at 3:18 p.m. ET with Haley leading.

“We were just on the wrong side of a lightning bolt,” Busch said.

A little more than an hour later, drivers were called to their cars and were strapping in when lightning again was detected within the 8-mile radius, delaying a restart.

Haley sought cover in the drivers meeting room, as officials transformed it into a backup Victory Lane.

“I’ve never been too lucky here,” Haley said as he waited while hearing the rain pelt the building’s roof. “That’s why I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”

Haley concedes he does not show much emotion. He appeared calm as he waited. But he wasn’t. A tongue-tied conversation that ended with a nervous laugh, betrayed his anxiousness. As did his right hand. He rose it to show a friend how much it shook.

“Definitely a lot of stuff going on,” Haley said with a chuckle.

That included his stomach, which he described as a “little turned over” while he waited.

“To be in this position is pretty insane,” Haley said.

The waiting ended at 5:30 p.m. ET when NASCAR declared the race over and Haley the latest winner at Daytona, joining a group that includes those named Petty, Earnhardt and Andretti.

The Haley family celebrated while looking toward Linda Braun.

“I know she had a hand in it,” Drew Braun said. “I know that. No doubt in my mind.”

Dennis said she would deliver a message to her mom once the victory hit. Standing near her son as he had pictures taken with his team and the trophy, the shock was still there.

But Dennis, speaking through tears, knew what she would tell mom.

“I’m going to say thanks.”

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NASCAR will have choose rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Following support from drivers, NASCAR will allow competitors to choose which lane they want to restart in during the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The choose rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. The choose rule also will be in place for the NASCAR Open.

NASCAR also announced the format for the NASCAR Open and All-Star Race.

In the NASCAR Open, which is for drivers who have not qualified for the All-Star Race:

  • Stage 1 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

The winner of each stage advances to the All-Star Race. After the NASCAR Open, the Fan Vote winner will be announced. That will go to the driver not yet qualified for the All-Star Race after competing in the NASCAR Open.

In the All-Star Race, the format will be:

  • Stage 1 will be 55 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 3 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

Both green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage. There will be an unlimited number of attempts at a green, white, checkered finish under green flag conditions.

NASCAR also stated that the car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give more exposure to the teams’ sponsors

The biggest change is the choose rule. At Bristol, the outside line is dominant on restarts. The leader chooses to restart on the outside line and the driver starting in the second row — in fourth place — often is second shortly after the restart because of the lane’s advantage. With the rule change, others would have the chance to start on the outside lane if they wanted.

“I see nothing bad that it can bring,” Joey Logano said of the chose rule concept in May. “It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about. You don’t have luck becoming involved. …

“I tell you, if I see a bunch of 12-year-olds do it in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I’m pretty sure all of us could figure it out.”

Said Austin Dillon: “As a sport we’re always changing. We’ve done a really good job with the mile-and-a-half program and brought it back to life. I think the next thing is trying to make it better for the fans and create more drama than it already has.”

Some drivers have called for this type of rule to prevent the brake checking that takes place at the exit of pit road so a driver can be in an even-number position in the running order and restart on the outside lane.

“It takes out pit crew’s fast stops,” Dillon said. “Your pit crew could’ve gained a couple of spots there, but instead you’re giving up two spots because you’d rather start on the outside. That’s gotta stop. I think it’s gonna knock someone’s nose in at the end of pit road before too long, so that will end a guy’s race. I don’t feel like it is a hard thing to do.”

The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol Motor Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic and North Carolina restrictions on mass gatherings. Bristol will be allowed to have up to 30,000 fans.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Or is it Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

They’ve won four of the last six Cup races, including the past two, and came within a late caution flag of being the last two Brickyard 400 winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Indianapolis weekend schedule

MORE: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick 1-2 in Power Rankings

“For the most part, when we have had chances to win races, we have won them,” Harvick said. “I think Sunday (at Pocono) was probably the only one that I could point to and say that we had the car to win the race and didn’t win the race. I think for the majority of the races that we have had chances to win we have capitalized on those situations.”

That Pocono race Sunday? Harvick finished second to Hamlin, who has won two of the last four races.

“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “I thought we’ve been really good.

“My team is really strong. They’re doing a lot of really good work at the race shop preparing our cars to be set up, optimized right from the first run of the day.

“Where we’re really struggling is not getting stage points. I think we’d be winning the regular season if we could get some. The way the races have played out, we’ve kind of made our bed to try to win the race because we’ve had race‑winning cars. I’ll definitely take race wins over stage wins, especially knowing that a race win counts for five (playoff points).”

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Indy as the defending winner. He led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds.

In 2018, Hamlin led at Indy when a caution with six laps to go took away his advantage. Brad Keselowski passed Hamlin coming to the white flag and won.

If not Harvick or Hamlin this weekend, Keselowski could be one to watch.

“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” said Keselowski, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes since the season resumed in May. “Very, very pleased to see how the team has come together. … Now we’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”

Even with Keselowski’s success, Harvick and Hamlin have been stout. This is how dominant Harvick and Hamlin have been all season and since May:

Most wins this year (15 races)

Most wins since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (3 wins)
  •  Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski (2 wins)

Most top-five finishes this year (15 races)

Most top-five finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 5s)
  • Kevin Harvick (7 top 5s)
  • Chase Elliott (6 top 5s)
  • Ryan Blaney (6 top 5s)

Most top 10 finishes this season (15 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (12 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (10 top 10s)

Most top 10 finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (8 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (8 top 10s)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (8 top 10s)

Patriots of America PAC to be primary sponsor for Go Fas Racing in nine races

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Patriots of America, a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, will be the primary sponsor of Corey LaJoie’s car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Go Fas Racing announced Wednesday.

Patriots of America PAC will be the primary sponsor on the car for eight additional races.  

“Our mission is to get voters registered and to the polls in November,” said Jeff Whaley on behalf of Patriots of America PAC. “We are excited about our sponsorship with Go Fas Racing No. 32 and Corey LaJoie. We feel this partnership is the best way to help us communicate this message to the NASCAR community and encourage all Americans to do their part by heading to the polls.”

Team owner Archie St. Hilaire said in a statement: “I am honored to be part of the President’s re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track electing President Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great!”

According to public documents, Patriots of America has paid Go Fas Racing $350,000 to this point for the sponsorship.

Sunday’s Cup race airs at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

NASCAR, Coca-Cola to honor military, frontline healthcare workers

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NASCAR will honor members of the U.S. Armed Forces and frontline healthcare workers throughout the month of July as part of this year’s expanded “NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola” initiative.

Per a media release, NASCAR said the program will be “an industry-wide opportunity to recognize and thank those who have gone above and beyond to keep society safe and healthy.”

The kickoff event for the program begins with Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), shifting to a mid-summer window due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take pride in honoring all who work tirelessly to keep our nation safe, whether a frontline worker in the fight against COVID-19 or part of our U.S. Armed Forces protecting us around the world,” said Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer, NASCAR. “The NASCAR industry has always been passionate about saluting our nation’s heroes both past and present, and we once again look forward to recognizing those who serve.”

Per a statement in the media release, NASCAR and Coca-Cola will create content to honor the “heroic work from our military and first responder community during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Through NASCAR digital and social channels, the industry will spotlight even more stories with a new ‘NASCAR Salutes Refreshing Moments’ feature that will also be hosted on NASCAR.com/Salutes.”

“While this crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives, we are able to race because of the selfless acts by our military community and frontline workers,” said John Mount, vice president, sports marketing and region assets, Coca-Cola North America. “NASCAR Salutes offers an impactful opportunity to showcase our pride and appreciation for these heroes and their families.”

In addition to premier partner Coca-Cola, several other NASCAR Official Partners will also take part in the program:

  • Mack Trucks will wrap its NASCAR Mack Anthem haulers with NASCAR Salutes-themed graphics voted on by fans at com/NASCARSalutes. The paint schemes honor both military and frontline heroes and the winning designs will be unveiled July 4 and debut during the NASCAR Salutes window.
  • AMR, the “Official Emergency Medical Services Partner of NASCAR,” will feature the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola branding on its NASCAR safety trucks and safety team helmets throughout the program.
  • Goodyear continued its tradition of replacing the iconic “Eagle” sidewall for 600 Miles of Remembrance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year’s recognition was the Honor and Remember organization, which works closely with the industry to honor gold star families who have lost family members while serving.
  • Mack Trucks and Blue-Emu also collaborated on a day-long effort to thank truckers and critical workers for their hard work during COVID-19. After a kickoff at Mack Trucks’ headquarters, NASCAR’s Mack Anthem haulers visited Virginia-based Sovah Health to thank the frontline workers at the hospital en route to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Fans can learn more about the heroes honored throughout the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Colaprogram by visiting NASCAR.com/Salutes.