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.”

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.