Justin Haley won Friday night’s
JAG Metals 350 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoff race when Todd Gilliland ran out of fuel half-a-lap away from Sunoco Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway.
“That was amazing. Thought we had a loss there,” said Haley, driver of the No. 24 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet Silverado.
Haley scored his third victory of the season by 8.133 seconds over Ben Rhodes as Gilliland coasted into the pits, where he exited his No. 4 JBL/SiriusXM Toyota Tundra and pounded the roof in frustration.
Round of 6 Playoff contender Haley – who began the night 53 points behind leader Johnny Sauter – will join his GMS teammate in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks. And Haley won’t have to count points when the series visits the 1-mile ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., near Phoenix next weekend.
“We’re bringing fast trucks and sat on-pole here last year and I screwed up as a driver and we didn’t win,” said Haley, referring to last November’s race and his fifth-place finish. “I’m kind of speechless. That last lap … I didn’t understand. (Crew chief) Kevin Bellicourt let me go out and drive. I thought I had maximized on pit road but didn’t know why he (Gilliland) was so far out. Obviously, he took on less fuel. It’s pretty surreal.”
Haley was 2.542 seconds behind Gilliland on Lap 144 of the scheduled 147, and then the leader began to slow – dramatically.
“We were in position to win that race … it sucks, it’s horrible. We were just a touch short on fuel,” said Gilliland, who ran 32 laps on his last fuel load. “I didn’t know there was anything happening (on fuel). I’m incredibly disappointed … but I’m super-proud to be in position to be fighting for wins.
“It’s just heartbreak and kind of disbelief. You’re a half-lap away from my first win at a place like this that’s so special and after everything we did today coming from the back, I felt like we executed a perfect race, honestly. Besides lacking a little bit of speed to beat some of those guys straight-up. With what our cards were dealt for the race, we ran 100 percent perfect, I felt like, minus the last half-lap. That’s all we can do is look forward now. It’s over and just need to move on.”
In addition to Bellicourt, Haley shared the post-race dais with team-owner Maurice Gallagher.
“We needed Justin to pull the rip-chord, and he did,” Gallagher said.
Sauter rallied to finish 11th after starting on-pole with a record lap at 188.758 mph and leading a lap before a cut tire forced him to pit the No. 21 ISM Connect Silverado. Sauter also was involved in an eight-vehicle accident on Lap 41, prompting several trips to pit road for repairs.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two GMS trucks racing for the championship,” said Haley, a brash 19-year-old. “We locked ourselves in and what it means to all the guys in the shop, to Chevy … not only does it affect my stress load going to Phoenix, but it’s a much bigger picture … over 100 employees at the shop … and it means a lot.”
Haley led four-times for 33 laps – a full 27 laps fewer than Gilliland’s race-leading 60 laps.
“I wasn’t given any information on any playoffs,” said Haley, who qualified sixth. “We’re here to win and we’ve got a very straight attitude. We come, we execute and we win tonight. Every week, long as we focus on ourselves and don’t get caught up in any playoffs, that’s when we run our best. We want to go out there and win.”
Rhodes, a non-Playoff driver, finished second in his No. 41 The Carolina Nut Co. Ford F-150 for his second top-10 finish in six races at TMS.
Playoff contender Brett Moffitt finished third in his No. 18 AISIN Group Toyota Tundra to score his first top-10 finish in two races at TMS. Moffitt trails championship leader Sauter by 19 points heading to Phoenix, where the final two slots will be filled.
A rather subdued Moffitt met the media post-race and explained, “I’m watching another guy (on TV) celebrating in Victory Lane knowing that he’s going to Homestead. I’m a competitor,” Moffitt said. “It certainly helps to run good, but when we’re in the playoffs like this, we need to get back to Victory Lane. That would be the most important thing to do. I thought tonight we did a better job at getting some stage points and being right there with the competition. We have a fast truck, we just need to be able to execute 100 percent and stay up front.
“I certainly think we can win (at Phoenix). Every given weekend I think we’ve had the speed capable of winning. It’s just about the execution of the race and I like Phoenix. I’ve never ran it in a truck. I’ve got a couple Cup starts there so that will be completely different and then obviously with the reconfiguration, who knows what’s going to happen. I’m confident in our race team that we can go there and compete and win. I think we’re in a decent points position now where unless some freak accident happens we’ll be alright.”
With third-place Haley locked into the Championship picture, attention turns to playoff contender Noah Gragson – fourth in points. Gragson, who finished 10th Friday night in the No. 18 Safelite AutoGlass Toyota, is 18 points ahead of fifth-place championship contender Grant Enfinger, who finished 13th in the No. 98 Protect the Harvest/Curb Records Ford.
“I got back on pit stops when we took fuel only and couldn’t get the balance right in traffic,” said Gragson, 23 points behind Sauter. “Just a tough night. No excuse. I’m going to work my ass off this week and next week and do whatever we have to do. This is unacceptable and we just have to get out there in Phoenix so we can get to Homestead.”
Two-time series champion Matt Crafton, who finished 14th Friday in his No. 88 Ideal Door/Menards Ford, is sixth and last on the Playoff leader, five points behind Enfinger and 46 behind Sauter.
TMS PR/Photo Credit Images for NASCAR