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(Photo: Christian Koelle)

2-Headed Monster: Is Justin Haley’s Daytona Win Good for the Sport?

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.

Sure. Maybe.

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

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About Adam Cheek

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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. Currently attending VCU, he broadcasts and writes about sports for the college's athletic organizations. He has been a racing fan since he was three years old, inheriting this passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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17 comments

  1. Avatar

    It is what it is…..luck! Rain shortened races often have surprise winners. On to the next race!

  2. Avatar

    Where can I start. I am 56 years old I grew up watching Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt. And all time great Richard Petty. It was my very first race to ever go to it was awesome just being there but to sit and watch someone from the back of the pack to be handed a trophy was very disappointing Lightning struck they stop the race when they called the race the rain stopped less than five minutes afterwords it never rained another drop the entire evening. I did get to met some drivers. That was very cool. But to watch the race given to the young man. That in all reason was not cool. If that’s the way it will be I will not be back. At least at home if I don’t like what’s going on I can change the Channel. And I don’t have to drive 700 mile to be disappointed. Face it. !!!
    NASCAR is not what it used to be that could be the reason why there’s so many drivers that are retiring it’s not worth the hassle !!!!

    • Avatar

      This past weekend marked support for NASCAR. For a rank amateur to be awarded a race is the straw that broke the camel’s back . First with Toyota in an American sport. Second ridiculously over managed. Stupid rules. Races that look like a merry-go-round for 95% of the time. And stage racing, I used to love it but no more. Rest in peace NASCAR obviously I’m not the only one judging from the empty seats.

  3. Avatar

    Just let it go. Nobody will here of Spire in Victory lane again. Just another weird “tapered spacer” race

  4. Avatar

    It’s Daytona. Nothing that happens there or at Talladega bears any resemblance to real racing. Anyone who wins at either track does so entirely by random chance.

  5. Avatar

    There are a lot of conflicting reports about when the rain actually stopped on Sunday. I was actually surprised NASCAR waited out as long as they did after rain finally hit the track. The last I checked radar it looked like the rain was filling and probably wouldn’t have stopped till after sundown. It’s also been reported that NASCAR considers the decision to wait till 11pm to start the 2015 race to be a big mistake. Like many of the other surprise winners at Superspeedways, this was just a confluence of events at the right time. This happens when you race in Florida in the heat of the summer.

    • Avatar
      Franklin Bullard

      Rain stopping a race anywhere I just a crap shoot.If they choose to pit or not is up to the team.Many races have been called to weather and who ever is leading gets the win.Just because he is not a full time driver in the series and his team is just getting started is of no concern they happen to be in the right place at the right time.Nascar has made mistakes over the years but this was not one if a fan ,crew member or driver or even a child had been injured or killed because of the storm everybody would be raising he’ll and demanding answers.
      Derrick cope Darrell waltrip and many others have won races they may not have if things didn’t go their way.A flat tire on the last lap costDale Sr a first win in the Daytona 500 you can go on and on about it circumstances dictate who wins not always the best car or driver.

  6. Avatar

    “so general profit is clearly a primary goal for them.”

    Today I learned that no other car owners are interested in making a profit through racing. Good to know that Penske, Childress, Hendrick, Gibbs, Rousch, etc are not all multi-millionaires…..

  7. Avatar

    “A dark day for NASCAR”…. Really?! It’s that big of a deal? I think you are being a bit over-dramatic with that sentence. My prediction is that in a year of two, it will be a footnote in NASCAR’s history. Speaking of history, I think if you look back you will see this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

    I wouldn’t want to see this happen regularly and if the rules were ever set up to make this happen more often, I’d be the first person beating the drum that NASCAR has totally effed-up but it doesn’t. It probably won’t happen again for 10 or 20 years. Why can’t people see this for what it is, an anomaly that came about because of the convergence of a field decimating big wreck, followed by a lightning strike, followed by rain. If any one of those 3 events don’t happen, K Busch or Truex or Kesolowski probably wins…. AGAIN.

    I think everyone just needs to take a pill and relax. The sky is not falling. There is no conspiracy. The world is still turning.

    • Avatar

      I’m a little tired of what people think about any sport. What’s good for NASCAR? What do you writers want… A focus group to determine the winner? Its the rules jack! I watch racing. I go to tracks to watch all racers…. Even back markers. That’s not what the media talks about? All races in my mind are stand alone events. Sorry I don’t buy in to getting into chase stuff. BTW. I like the start of the rain delayed daytona race. Yes no 4 hours of talk.

  8. Avatar

    I think this perhaps shows a flaw in this situation where a car literally runs in the back all day until mere moments before the race is called and is handed a trophy for a victory. The words of Haley at that moment sum it up best: “I didn’t do anything.”

    Happy for Haley, but this almost seems like being handed a win just because you showed up….hollow…

  9. Avatar

    It is neither good nor bad – it just is. It is not this great cinderalla story nor a huge disaster. It is not an upset. It was a fluke. All of the teams knew weather was coming – spotters had to be able to see it, the teams have radar in the pits, etc. Haley’s team took a chance & it paid off. Weird things happen sometimes. Not everything has some great meaning & this is one of them.

  10. Avatar

    NASCAR screwed their credibility even more letting this nonsense as a “Cinderella” win! Are you kidding me? How embarrassing. And the driver and the team were hoisting the trophy as if they had a hard fought battle and won on merit. Pffftt. They didn’t even have a teeny, tiny little battle that some one could grudgingly say, o.k. he got so and so at the time it counted. This incident was not the case. This person has done nothing, his stats. Racers Reference…could not give him the benefit of the doubt that…well, ya maybe..he ran good at this race, was leading a lap or two at this race…..HE GOT NOTHING, and he hoists the trophy. How can that look good for the sport? NASCAR screwed up! They owed it to the faithful fans to have a competitive finish. I am sure this is not what fans had in mind.

    • Avatar

      They ran till weather was a factor, all weather shortened races end just about the same way just this time is was with a team that has almost no intention to be competitive. This takes nothing from the driver though, you do not get to NASCAR without being competitive and given that they never planned to win a race, how could you not expect them to be thrilled. The individuals on the team want to win but the owners of the team aren’t going to give them the finances to do so.

      NASCAR lost the track, say that clearing does happen at 8 or 9 pm? It takes 2 to 3 hours to dry the track, so what they start the race back up at 10-11pm on a Sunday night. The weather was downright awful all weekend down there. Fans have already stayed an extra day, the Network rescheduled their originally intended program to feature the race and they got most of it in. If anything it is Kurt Busch’s teams fault for pitting, why pit from the lead when you know the weather situation could turn at any minute and it was very doubtful the race would get to the finish.

      • Avatar

        Agree with that last sentence 100%. It was Busch’s to win or lose and if they’d just of had the balls to take a chance he would have won. With all the attrition from the “big one” he would have gotten a top ten whether he stayed out or not so he wouldn’t have lost a bunch of points in the standing either way.

        Even more strange is why Johnson didn’t try to stay out and break his losing streak. He was willing to gamble and go for it last year at Charlotte and it knocked him out of the chase. Why wasn’t he willing to gamble this time when there was much less on the line? Once again he probably would have finished in the top 10 even if he had stayed out, there were only a handful of undamaged cars left on the track.

        • Avatar

          Agreed, it was anyones win for the taking and after that large wreck and only being 10 to 15 laps short on fuel and besides you always hear guys saying restrictor plate tracks are nothing but a toss up anyways when it comes to points. Just really surprised that the only team that gambled on the weather was the team that wants to keep their car out of trouble….

    • Avatar

      I was disappointed with the call, they kept saying we will start the race.We sat under the stands waiting for the weather to break. Their were a lot of boo’s when they called it. They do have lights and invited people to the fireworks. I am done with going to races,I sit home and watch them for FREE

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