Was Justin Haley’s Cup win most unlikely in last 20 years? Maybe not

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In a long history littered with upsets and unlikely winners, Justin Haley’s victory might be remembered as the biggest fluke yet in NASCAR.

But it also might be remembered as the start of something big, as it was for a few other bolts from the blue in the Cup Series.

In only his third Cup start (and the 18th race for fledgling Spire Motorsports in its inaugural season), Haley was in first for one lap – the only lap he’s led in his career – when the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was stopped Sunday because of inclement weather.

The 20-year-old from Winamac, Indiana, inherited the lead when Kurt Busch pitted from the lead on Lap 127 of a scheduled 160. A little more than two hours later, after multiple holds for lightning and a downpour, Haley was declared the winner.

LONG: The signs were there for Haley’s bombshell

He became the first driver to win a race with one career lap led since Brad Keselowski scored his inaugural victory on April 26, 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Keselowski is one of several Cup winners who were as unexpected as Haley was Sunday at Daytona.

Keselowski also is a good example of some who went on to create much greater legacies.

Here are some of the biggest upsets over the past 20 years in NASCAR’s premier series (which means we are excluding some memorable surprises from the Xfinity and truck series, such as David Gilliland at Kentucky Speedway in 2006):


2016 Pennsylvania 400: In NASCAR’s first fog-shortened race in more than 40 years, Chris Buescher led the final 12 laps by staying on track after many pitted during a green-flag cycle.

The rookie won in his 27th career Cup start and catapulted into a playoff berth that was a seven-figure boon for Front Row Motorsports.

“This is going to change our whole year right here,” he said. “We got a win here, so we’ll take it any way we can get it.”


2013 Aaron’s 499: Another Front Row Motorsports stunner as teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2, rocketing from the fourth row in a two-lap overtime restart that ended a race delayed more than three hours by rain.

(John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“This is a true David vs. Goliath moment here,” said Ragan, who snookered Carl Edwards with a last-lap pass for the second victory of his career (after winning at Daytona in July 2011).

The win was popular among the well-funded teams that were vanquished for a rare moment. Jimmie Johnson responded, “Awesome,” when told of Ragan’s victory over the radio, and Kevin Harvick tweeted it was “what NASCAR is all about!!!”

“As frustrated as I am by this loss, I’m really happy for (Ragan and Gilliland),” Edwards said.

“I see how hard teams have to work to be competitive at this level. It truly couldn’t happen to two better guys.”


2011 Southern 500: “We’re not supposed to win this thing!” Regan Smith radioed his Furniture Row Racing team after his only victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Earning his first career win in a signature race on one of the trickiest tracks in NASCAR (it had been 23 years since Darlington’s last first-time Cup winner, Lake Speed) was a feat for Smith. It also was the first win for Furniture Row Racing, which was only in its second full season and years removed from becoming a championship contender.

But most impressive was how Smith won: Inheriting the lead by staying on track under caution and then fending off Edwards (who was on fresh tires) on two late restarts. Smith slammed the Turn 2 wall on the final lap while holding the throttle wide open to join a roster of legendary Southern 500 winners that includes David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

“I don’t know if my name deserves to be next to them, but after tonight, maybe it does,” said Smith, who wouldn’t win again in Cup but became a perennial winner and title contender in Xfinity.


2011 Daytona 500: A day after turning 20, Trevor Bayne won the Great American Race in the second start of his Cup career. In a perfect blend of new blood meets old school, it was the first Daytona 500 win for venerable No. 21 of Wood Brothers Racing since Pearson outdueled Petty in a classic 1976 finish.

(Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Bayne’s performance at Daytona International Speedway was nearly as sublime. As many Cup stars struggled to adapt to the phenomenon of tandem drafting, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native made a host of veteran moves to avoid many wrecks and parry a final charge by runner-up Edwards.

“If I tried to put it into words, I couldn’t do it any justice,” said Bayne, who famously radioed “Am I dreaming?” to his team after taking the checkered flag of the 53rd Daytona 500 to become the race’s youngest winner.

It would be the only Cup victory for Bayne, who didn’t run full time in NASCAR’s premier series until 2015. His career-best points ranking was 22nd, and he left the series after last season.


2009 Coca-Cola 600: David Reutimann was in 14th place when he stayed on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway and inherited his first lead just past the halfway mark of the longest race of the season.

Five laps later, NASCAR stopped the race, and after two hours of intermittent rain, Reutimann was named a first-time winner. The most notable thing he did during the first 300 miles of the race was anger Tony Stewart with some blocking maneuvers.

“It certainly wasn’t the prettiest, but someone’s got to win these things,” said the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, who had six top 10s in the previous 74 starts and failed to qualify for 10 races two years earlier. “We might as well take a gamble.”

Who made the genius call?

A crew chief named Rodney Childers.


2009 Aaron’s 499: In his fifth Cup start, Brad Keselowski drove with the verve of a veteran and never more so than on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway when he held steadfast on his line as Edwards cut down on him with a block that backfired.

(Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The contact sent Edwards’ Ford sailing into the catchfence (scattering debris that injured seven fans) and introduced NASCAR to the steely resolve of the then relatively unknown Keselowski, 25, who delivered car owner James Finch’s underfunded and part-time team its only win in 251 starts.

“This is NASCAR racing at its finest,” Keselowski said. “This was a great show. … There has to be some element of danger. Who doesn’t love watching football players hitting each other head on as fast as they can? That’s what the fans want: Contact. If we’d ran all race without contact, someone would have written about how boring it was.”

The first restrictor-plate start of Keselowski’s Cup career didn’t lack for action. Keselowski admitted he nearly wrecked the field after a bump from Dale Earnhardt Jr. left him pointed him toward the infield but added, “but you ain’t got time to be scared. How does that saying go? ‘I ain’t got time to bleed’? You’d better go, and if you’re scared, this is not the right place to be, because that’s when you make poor decisions.”

The five-time Talladega winner eventually proved often to make the right decision in the track’s game of three-dimensional chess … but 10 years ago, it was stunning that he could be so good in his debut.


2002 UAW-GM Quality 500: This was how a whirlwind five weeks went for Jamie McMurray.

Hired to drive full time for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2003 … named less than a month later as injured Sterling Marlin’s replacement for the final seven races of the 2002 season … set a record in the second start of his Cup career by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his self-proclaimed worst track in NASCAR.

(Sporting News via Getty Images)

“Everybody asks if I’m nervous,” McMurray said after leading 87 of the final 106 laps at Charlotte and beating Bobby Labonte (one of the best on the 1.5-mile oval during that era). “Yes, I’m freaking nervous!”

What made the Joplin, Missouri, native’s breakout from obscurity even more astounding was that his first Cup win came before his first victory in the Xfinity Series, where he had three top fives in 64 career starts to date. He quickly ran off two wins in the final five races of the Xfinity season, proving how far a little confidence can carry a driver.

“They took a chance on me,” McMurray said of team co-owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates after the Charlotte win. “They put me in first-class equipment, and I made the most of it.”

Said Ganassi: “It’s validated now. A lot of these young kids today have the talent and everyone’s fast. I look at the heart. Jamie’s got a lot of heart.”

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)