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 fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC)

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).