ONE: A NASCAR Weather Solution To Prevent Future Chaos
It’s Tuesday, July 9, two days after the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400, and Justin Haley’s win still seems like a dream.
Time to wake up.
The unthinkable for a Spire Motorsports team that hasn’t even finished on the lead lap in its existence happened on a bizarre Sunday afternoon. A Big One was followed by a big lightning strike, some weird weather decisions and, suddenly, the No. 77 was sitting in victory lane.
Let’s repeat: A team with 1,000-to-1 odds, a car that led a single lap under caution took home one of the biggest NASCAR trophies all year. It’s one of the biggest upsets in Cup Series history, a scrambled result that has the fan base up in arms. If you’re not sitting there cheering this incredible Cinderella story, my guess is you’re literally ripping up race tickets and swearing off the sport entirely (as several fans claimed on air with SiriusXM Sunday night). The controversial finish has people that fired up among all corners of the NASCAR garage area.
To me, the biggest problem surrounding the ending is that NASCAR officials once again made a subjective call. Had they moved on lightning a lap earlier, it’s Kurt Busch, not Haley sitting in victory lane. Busch was the first car to cross the line after missing the Big One, and he put himself in position to win the race. It was NASCAR’s indecisiveness surrounding Mother Nature that gave Haley an opportunity to pounce, one crew chief Peter Sospenzo seized with brilliant strategy when an errant one-to-go sign sent Busch and others speeding down pit road.
But the ending stinks of unfairness, right? Officials basically made the choice of when and how to end the race under caution. The winner moved up not because of fuel mileage, raw speed or sudden attrition after the yellow flag came out; Haley simply stayed on the track while everyone else pitted. The roulette wheel could have landed on any one of the lead-lap drivers in that scenario. Don’t believe me? Listen to what Haley said himself when he won … I didn’t do anything.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 7, 2019
But there’s a way to take the randomness out of it. NASCAR can make a rule that, in the event of a race-ending red flag due to weather, the final running order reverts to the moment of caution. That way, if the event never gets restarted, you don’t have the final order mixed up and thrown together like confetti. After all, it wasn’t just Haley who benefited and Busch who got hurt based on pitting. Other drivers moved up and down that shouldn’t have wound up where they finished.
If this type of rule were in effect on Sunday, no one would have to worry about Mother Nature interfering. Busch would have been declared the winner, followed by William Byron and Jimmie Johnson. The drivers up front who missed the wreck would be rewarded and not have to worry about when and how a random lightning strike would mess up their day.
Certainly, you want NASCAR racing to be unpredictable. But this type of rule doesn’t take away from, say, a driver trying to beat the weather on fuel mileage. Chris Buescher would have still won Pocono in 2016, for example, when his underdog team used pit strategy under green to try and beat the weather. You still give the ability of crew chiefs to make race-defining calls with threatening weather.
But winning by staying out under yellow and letting NASCAR dictate the ending isn’t exactly how the sport is intended to work. Haley certainly won fair and square under the rules, but moving forward, there’s a way to fix it.
TWO: This Isn’t Justin Haley’s Fault
As exciting as this win is for Haley, I feel bad for him. As criticism mounts over Spire Motorsports, it’s not his fault their Cup Series program is run by a sports agency. It’s not his call over how they spend money and whether they’re running this car with the right intentions. And he’s certainly not supposed to turn down a trophy when once-in-a-lifetime circumstances come his way.
Most importantly, unlike some other part-time rookies making their Cup debut this season, the 20-year-old Haley has been working up the ranks the right way. He’s got 12 top-10 finishes in 16 races with Kaulig Racing’s NASCAR Xfinity Series program. That promotion came after two full-time Gander Outdoors Truck Series seasons (missed the first two races in 2017 because he was under 18); he ran third in the points last year with three wins.
So Haley’s limited schedule with Spire Motorsports is no fluke. He’s doing what countless other young drivers did before him: gain experience in a lower-tier Cup ride while looking to move up someday. He deserved to be on the racetrack, missed the Big One and played by the rules. That Cup trophy is his to keep.
THREE: The Other Elephant In The Room … Clint Bowyer – Austin Dillon
Daytona’s bizarro ending buried the other big storyline to come out of Sunday: the big wreck. Two drivers in Bowyer and Dillon, their seasons potentially on the line, were 1-2 and driving cars with speed to win the race. So with the laps winding down, weather coming and a package where you need to block to survive … neither driver was willing to give.
Or hang their head in shame afterwards.
“You have to be behind somebody to have a block,” Bowyer said. “I was clearly clear up beside him. That was pretty bad, man. And then he just kept coming down. … the kid was doing everything he could to stay in the lead. It was just pretty foolish.”
“I had a good push from the No. 14 and my plan, as soon as I was clear of the No. 11, was to cut left and get down again to get with my Chevy teammates,” Dillon responded. “It’s really unfortunate. Just trying to get a race win. I got turned a little bit left when [Bowyer] went left and he just shot me down there. It’s just part of this type of racing. I was being aggressive, trying to keep the lead. …”
In truth, neither driver seemed responsible for what seemed like one of those racin’ deals. Both men knew their spot in the playoffs (and in Bowyer’s case, a future with Stewart-Haas Racing) could be dependent on a victory. Dillon is especially in desperation mode; he’s 22nd in points, some 77 behind Ryan Newman for the final spot. Bowyer is in better shape but sits just four points above the cutline and SHR teammate Daniel Suarez.
Their wreck was exactly the type of aggression NASCAR hopes this playoff system produces; drivers determined to win at all costs. It’s just in this case, that extra effort wound up wiping out half the field. …
FOUR: Keselowski’s Superspeedway Collapse
Brad Keselowski stirred up trouble this Daytona weekend after bumping William Byron during practice and insisting he needed to “draw a line in the sand” with blocking. The message itself is not new; check out what he said after last July’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
“You know, I’m just not wrecking enough people,” he said back then. “I need to wreck more people so I stop throwing bad blocks. So all them drivers out there, throw another bad block, I’m just gonna drive through you and wreck you.”
It’s a whole lot of tough talk from Keselowski. So what happened in this year’s race? There was no wrecking; instead, a simple push went bad from Kevin Harvick turned Keselowski’s No. 2 into scrap metal.
“I know I was going straight one moment and the next moment I wasn’t,” Keselowski said. “It’s unfortunate. We were all two and three-wide racing and just got tagged from the back.”
It’s also another DNF on the belt of a guy many thought was the best superspeedway racer once Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired. Keselowski does have a total of six career Cup victories at Daytona and Talladega to lead active drivers.
Problem is, those wins are getting obscured by some wild inconsistency on these tracks. Keselowski now has nine career DNFs at Daytona paired with only four top 10s in 21 starts. That ugliness includes a whopping five wrecks in his last six starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval with an average finish of 29.5 in those races.
Talladega’s track record is slightly better (11 top 10s, five wins, just three DNFs in 21 starts). But Keselowski has now gone without a top-10 finish at a superspeedway since winning the fall 2017 race at Talladega. That’s unacceptable for a driver with his track record, a slump that’s made him understandably upset.
FIVE: The Other Underdog Lost In The Shuffle … Kaulig Racing
Finally this week, don’t forget about that other underdog team who snuck away with Daytona glory. Kaulig Racing, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team with no Cup ties. brought three cars to the racetrack for the first time in its history. Their reward? A first ever NXS victory and a 1-2-3 finish on track with Ross Chastain, Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger (Allmendinger’s car was later DQ’d in post-race inspection).
For a team that’s been slowly building toward this moment, Kaulig’s Daytona was the culmination of a three-plus-year effort laying a NASCAR foundation. Their full-time driver, Haley, has already set a new benchmark in top-10 finishes for them (12) with 17 races still left in the season. The No. 11 is a playoff team that should be taken seriously as a dark horse contender to slide into the fourth spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway behind Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick.
For a sport increasingly dependent on a few select teams to keep it afloat, Kaulig’s emergence in a series desperate for solid ownership is a great storyline. The team is looking toward expansion for 2020 with proper sponsorship and has put itself in position for long-term success.