Justin Haley scored his maiden victory at Daytona International Speedway this past weekend thanks to thunderstorms in the area, also marking Spire Motorsports’ first-ever victory.
The result left fans divided on their feelings about how the underfunded team’s strategy paid off. Was the first victory for a part-time driver in his third start and a sub-par team good for the sport? Adam Cheek and Vito Pugliese debate.
A Dark Day for NASCAR
Haley wins at Daytona in his third career start. Spire Motorsports wins their first race in their first season of competition.
It’s such a surreal sentence that I’m still not entirely sure that it happened.
One thing’s for sure – it is not a good look for NASCAR. You’ll get people who say it’s a good story – for Haley, redemption at Daytona one year after his last-lap pass for the win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race was declared null and void and also for Spire Motorsports, a tiny, super-underfunded team, their first-ever win in their debut season.
I won’t deny that it’s a big confidence booster for Haley, who won several Gander Outdoors Truck Series races in 2018 and has run well for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series, finishing second at Daytona two days before the Cup victory. The kid is incredibly talented and has a bright future ahead of him, and he’s only 20 – he has everything at his disposal and he’s shown he has the ability and capacity to win and perform.
I also won’t argue that it’s neat to see a smaller team and a young driver get their first win – it’s one of the coolest parts of this sport and I love seeing it. It’s just not the same in a situation like this.
If it was a small team who had shown prowess, stayed out of trouble and been in contention (or at least run relatively well) throughout the season – hell, even just the summer Daytona race itself – it would fit the “good story” bill just a bit better. Ditto if the No. 77 was running mid-pack with several laps to go and was pushed toward the front, racing his way to the lead before the red flag came out.
But this isn’t a normal feel-good story in the same vein of David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports outrunning the competition at Talladega Superspeedway, Brian Vickers taking home a surprise victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway or any of the five first-time winners in 2011.
Those were different. In 2011, Ragan, Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith all raced for major teams, playing strategy or racing well to get their victories, and Marcos Ambrose’s first win came on a road course, his specialty. Ragan’s Talladega win in 2013 came as a result of working together with teammate David Gilliland, pushing their way to the front when it mattered. Vickers’ car was so good at New Hampshire in 2013 that he fought off all comers to win.
The 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 wasn’t that kind of situation. I won’t criticize Spire’s strategy – they stayed out, took a chance and it paid off. Also, Haley did sneak through the massive crash that collected 19 cars. However, not even 60 laps into the race, they were in 35th, and they barely ran inside the top 30 for most of the event.
For those who compare this to Chris Buescher’s fog-shortened win at Pocono Raceway, here’s this for consideration: Buescher was a full-time driver for an established team. Front Row Motorsports had been around for more than 10 years, were a consistent part of the field each week and had notched one win and multiple strong runs already.
Sure, Buescher had only averaged a 29.2 finish up to that point, but he had three top-20 finishes and was coming off one of those — a 14th-place effort at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — going into Pocono. He went on to have several more relatively strong runs, including a fifth at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Let’s compare that. Haley had averaged a finish of 33rd over his two prior starts in 2019 (of course, a small sample size), but the bigger picture is even more telling.
Spire Motorsports didn’t attempt the Daytona 500 in the No. 77, instead teaming with Chip Ganassi Racing for Jamie McMurray’s final career start in the No. 40. When the team did get on track in full capacity – the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway – they earned a 36th-place effort with Garrett Smithley behind the wheel. Of course, this is to be expected with a new team, but when it’s stacked beside the recent victory, the differences are all the more noticeable.
Over their first 18 races in Cup competition, not counting their Daytona partnership, the team fielded five different drivers and was even parked prior to halfway at Dover International Speedway when they didn’t meet minimum speed. Spire’s No. 77 team averaged a finish of 33.2, didn’t finish better than 28th and completed only 4,222 of 4,817 laps (87.6%) — they hadn’t finished fewer than two laps down (overall) and three laps down (on ovals).
I describe them as “Obaika Racing, but they actually show up to the races.”
Let’s also consider that Spire isn’t just a race team, but also a sports agency. Spire Sports + Entertainment has branches reaching out into the music industry, the NTT Indycar Series and even to an East Coast Hockey League team, so general profit is clearly a primary goal for them. There have been complaints that the agency has put minimal effort into the race team and only acquired a NASCAR charter to turn a quick profit. Not to mention, Spire represents several teams and drivers that they compete against on the track, which is a major conflict of interest.
NASCAR has its share of feel-good stories, for sure, but a pair of freak lightning strikes within the radius of the track giving an underfunded team and a part-time driver their first win, because many drivers decided to pit and shake up the running order, is a very, very bad look for the sport.
I have no issue with the regulations – the radius for lightning, the concern for fans’ safety – all of that is important, especially given past situations. However, there’s a large gray area regarding NASCAR’s decisions on Sunday – calling one to go, which led to the leaders heading to pit road. Kurt Busch, who snuck through the Big One, came to pit road as the leader of that group and was in position to restart 10th when the race was red flagged. In context and hindsight, these pit stops were therefore entirely unnecessary.
Now, I’m not in the camp that believes NASCAR “screwed Busch out of a win.” However, their decision-making process is somewhat nebulous and certainly did not do anything to help the fans’ reaction to the race’s outcome.
NASCAR probably should have waited a little longer – for the fans’ sake and the sport’s sake – and tried to get it going. After all, Daytona has lights and there were only 30-odd laps remaining. The storm system didn’t look all that large, so they likely could’ve finished it Sunday night.
According to tweets, it stopped raining at Daytona shortly after they called the race. Given that this was the final July 4 weekend race at Daytona before the schedule changes next year and Indianapolis is moved to the holiday weekend, NASCAR should’ve tried to finish the race.
The 400-mile event is one of the most anticipated races every year, with fans flocking to the World Center of Racing to see some of the world’s best drivers duel it out on the high-banked superspeedway. Sunday’s decision left many, including myself, with an empty feeling going into next week’s event at Kentucky Speedway. -Adam Cheek
If a Tree Falls in the Woods and Nobody Hears It, Does Anybody Care?
Haley’s unlikely win at Daytona ranks among the biggest surprises of all time and certainly at Daytona. Some have cited others like Derrike Cope winning on the last lap of the 1990 Daytona 500 or Greg Sacks in an unmarked DiGard Motorsports No. 10 at Daytona in the 1985 Firecracker 400 at Daytona as similar upsets. Those are different situations as Cope was up front when the incident with Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 happened and backed up that win with one at Dover in June later that year when that was still a 500-lap race. Sacks was in contention throughout the entire race that day and led 33 laps.
While Haley’s certainly was an unlikely win, is it one that is good for the sport?
Normally, in 2-Headed Monster, we battle opposing views. In this instance, I am going to stop halfway and say it’s neither good nor bad for the sport (though as Nick Bromberg from Yahoo! Sports is keenly correct in citing, NASCAR is a sanctioning body; auto racing is a sport) as for how fans perceive it. Maybe at another time, it would be considered a feel-good win and garner more positive press than it has so far — ay last year after Haley had a win taken away after going below the yellow line coming to the flag to win the Daytona Xfinity Series race – given the circumstances surrounding this win.
This is one that has a shelf life of about a week until the upcoming race at Kentucky, and the subject will change quickly – and for good reason.
To be fair, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story for Spire Motorsports. Most are now aware of the team purchasing the former Furniture Row Racing charter following Barney Visser’s bowing out at the end of the 2018 season. A championship-caliber team that had to wait a bit to sell its charter – and then to a team that didn’t really exist at the time – speaks volumes about the tenuous financial state of the sport.
The potential conflicts of interest given their rep agency focus are present, but not unlike others that have existed in the sport before. Nobody ever brought up the chummy relationship between Richard Childress and Bill France, Jr., during the 1980s and 90s, even though a phone call in protest to a race win in 1990 ended up determining the champion that season. Citing a more modern-day example, Jack Roush supplying engines to all of the Ford teams (through Roush Yates Engines) – including Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske – never comes up.
Go to the track some weekend and you’ll see crewmen wearing Hendrick Engines uniforms, servicing those powerplants they lease out to fellow competitors. That certainly didn’t look good in 2017 when Jimmie Johnson beat out Kyle Larson to advance in the playoffs after Larson’s Hendrick engine blew.
There are instances when these sorts of arrangements haven’t been fair. Richard Petty cited how when Petty Enterprises switched to Ford in 1969, the engines they received from Holman-Moody were six miles per hour slower than the competition. After snagging a motor from a less-funded team, they tried it out and suddenly were as fast as anyone.
So the potential for impropriety is a possibility, if not always present.
NASCAR is unique in that so many relationships are intertwined and sometimes could be perceived as downright incestuous. Racing in general in that regard has gotten a pass from those criticisms, mainly due to its niche positioning and understanding of many in the public. That said, it’s not immune to being called out if there is an issue. Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, prior to his appearance in the MLB All-Star Game this week, said that baseball is becoming “a —-ing joke” after a spate of home runs has been linked to (once again) juiced baseballs. He called out MLB for their recent acquisition of Rawlings, who supplies the baseballs for MLB, and the sudden explosion of home runs, particularly in the Home Run Derby on Monday night when 91 home runs left the yard courtesy of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (Little V?).
Now, of course, those in the racing community don’t like to compare NASCAR to stick-and-ball sports. Fair enough, but we can’t turn a blind eye toward certain things when they can be concluded as having an impact on the product. In this case, however, it will probably get little more than a shoulder shrug from the majority of fans. What is the overall impact that everyone’s concerned about?
It is true the No. 77 car (still using the Furniture Row Racing number styling) was never competitive during the race – or any race for that matter- and was in the back missing the Big One that eliminated most of the contenders. Yes, they made the right call on choosing not to pit and gaming the weather correctly to win the race. That is all true and well within the realm of fair play, no different than what Buescher and Front Row did in 2016 – qualifying for them for the playoffs in the process – when he won at Pocono due to heavy fog and pit strategy.
This win does little more than get Haley into the Monster Energy All-Star Race for 2020, assuming Spire is still an entity at that time. Given statements made by Spire Motorsports co-founder Jeff Dickerson, they are in this for the long haul and have a long-term plan to be a viable team in the years to come.
The real issue at hand is why the race was not restarted, which would have prevented any of the hand-wringing and citing allegations of any potential conflicts of interest. The discussion on call-in shows and daily NASCAR talk shifted as to why they didn’t go racing when it was dry for half an hour after they brought them down pit road. But they didn’t due to the lightning strikes in the area and NASCAR’s use of the NCAA’s rule of 30 minutes with no lightning within a 10-mile radius. Yes, we’ve had fans killed before by lightning and it’s not a chance we can take – but yet, fans were playing catch with Bubba Wallace during all of this, so perhaps that window can be tightened up.
However, when photos emerge of the track a little after 7 p.m. EST and the skies are blue over the press box and the track appears gray, people have a right to question why more of an effort wasn’t made to actually finish the race. Rain showers in the afternoon in Florida aren’t an anomaly – it’s another reason they always started the race before 11 a.m. in the past, besides the heat. You’ve been there all weekend as it is, what’s another couple of hours to try and get a race in at a track where millions were invested to install lights? Tom Bowles, in his Five Points to Ponder column this week, had another take on how to address these types of issues to prevent teams from just not pitting to win when it’s evident that the race will be restarting in mere moments.
In the end, the ultimate impact and outcome of the Spire Motorsports win is similar to Brett Bodine winning his first race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1990. Darrell Waltrip and his team were convinced there was a scoring error, and Waltrip was giving Bill France, Jr. an earful afterward, intending to protest the finish. France – the ever-benevolent dictator that he was – put his arm around Waltrip and said, “Darrell … that boy over there just won his first race. He might not ever win another one, but you’re going to win more. Maybe just let this one go.”
Maybe letting this one go is better than investing additional emotional energy and outrage over a fledgling team that lucked out on a lightning bolt. –Vito Pugliese
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.