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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”