In one of the most improbable upsets in the history of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, 20-year-old Justin Haley was declared the winner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 Sunday at Daytona International Speedway when the race was halted after 127 laps of the scheduled 160 due to inclement weather.
Haley, having raced his No. 77 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports into the top 10, assumed the lead during a red-flag period after a number of other front-running drivers pitted, thinking the race was going to be restarted. Haley’s team opted for him to stay on the track.
Worsening weather caused an extension of the red flag, with Haley atop the leaderboard. Approximately two hours later, the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular was announced as the winner, the youngest in event history. Haley is ineligible for a NASCAR Playoffs berth that normally would accompany a Monster Energy Series victory, due to his full-time status in the Xfinity Series.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron (No. 24 Axalta Patriotic Chevrolet) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Ally Chevrolet) finished second and third, respectively.
“This is absolutely a blessing,” said a relieved Haley after getting word of the victory. “The stars aligned. I didn’t think I’d ever get redemption from last year in Daytona.”
Haley’s surprise victory follows a runner-up finish Friday night in the Circle K Firecracker 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, an Xfinity Series race he nearly won last year, in what was his second career Xfinity Series start. That July night, Haley tried a dramatic last-lap move and scooted underneath Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler at the finish line to seemingly pull off the victory. But Haley’s path caused his left-side tires to go below both yellow lines that separate the apron from the racing surface; that was deemed a violation and Haley was dropped to 18th in the final results.
“To come back and get redemption in the Cup Series is pretty cool,” Haley said after the nerve-racking wait for the final decision from NASCAR officials.
“You just don’t know [what’s going to happen]. People keep asking you how you’re feeling. I’m like ‘well, I can’t do anything about it’. If we go racing, we go racing. If it rains out, we rain out. I can’t do anything about it. At the end of the day, I was just waiting.”
The red-flag situation was caused by a 17-car incident on Lap 117 between Turns 1 and 2. Austin Dillon (No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet) and Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Mobil 1/Rush Truck Centers Ford) were running 1-2 when Bowyer tried an inside move. Dillon’s Chevrolet edged into the path of Bowyer’s Ford, triggering the trouble.
The race was divided into three stages of 50, 50 and 60 laps. Stage winners collect additional, valuable points that go toward the season-long standings for the Monster Energy Series championship.
Sunday’s polesitter Joey Logano (No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford) is the reigning Monster Energy Series champion and also won the DAYTONA 500 in 2015, but came in Sunday looking to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 for the first time. He got the pole position when inclement weather caused the cancellation of RaceTrac Qualifying on Friday, forcing the starting grid to be established by car owner point standings.
Logano was dominant throughout the first stage, leading three times for 35 laps. Among those 35 was the last lap, when Logano got past front-running Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford) in Turn 3.
Dillon, the 2018 DAYTONA 500 champion, took the second stage which carried a heightened sense of urgency for drivers running at or near the front. A threat of rain developed and with the completion of the second stage making the race “official,” drivers battled especially hard for the front – just in case there would be no third stage. Stage 2 had nine lead changes, with Dillon leading four times for 39 laps including the last three laps of the stage.