In the bubbling cauldron that is Daytona International Speedway on race day, perhaps it’s the closely bunched pack racing that is most responsible for producing near-magical outcomes — none of which could have been more unexpected than Justin Haley’s victory on Sunday in the rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Haley’s win with start-up Spire Motorsports, which had only one finish better than 28th in 17 previous races, also brought balance to the karmic equation. In last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona, Haley was demoted to 18th after dipping below the double yellow line between the racing surface and the apron to make what was ostensibly the winning pass.
In Friday night’s Xfinity race, he finished a bittersweet second to Kaulig Racing teammate Ross Chastain. But on Sunday, after rain drenched the asphalt at the World Center of Racing, Haley, at 20 years, two months and nine days old, became the third-youngest winner of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, behind only 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and 2009 New Hampshire winner Joey Logano.
Haley seemed just as stunned as everyone else that he had won a Cup race in his third start in the series.
“The stars aligned, and I didn’t ever think I was going to get redemption back from ... last year at Daytona when I got the Xfinity win taken away from me,” Haley said.
“To come back and get redemption in the Cup Series is pretty cool, and it makes that second-place finish with Kaulig last Friday a lot better.”
Though Haley is the latest to get a stunning victory at Daytona, he’s hardly the first. In 2011, Bayne won the Daytona 500 in his second Cup start and never won again. David Ragan picked up his first Cup victory in July of that same year.
In 2014, Aric Almirola got the first of his two Cup triumphs at a superspeedway (2014 at Daytona, 2018 at Talladega), and last year, the July race at Daytona gave Erik Jones his only Cup win to date.
But if Daytona often adds unexpected winners to the NASCAR record book, the next stop on the Cup circuit — Kentucky Speedway — provides a reality check. The series has raced at Kentucky eight times. Only four different drivers have taken the checkered flag there, and all are former series champions.
Brad Keselowski has won three times at the 1.5-mile speedway, which was repaved and reconfigured in 2016. Kyle Busch and two-time defending winner Martin Truex Jr. have two victories each at the track, which tends to identify the most successful drivers in the series. It’s no coincidence that Busch, Truex and Keselowski come to Kentucky with a combined 11 wins in the first 18 races of 2019.
Those three drivers also come to Kentucky during a season that has produced the best racing in recent memory on intermediate speedways. The statistics don’t lie: Green-flag passes at 1.5-mile tracks are substantially higher year over year, and green-flag passes for the lead are up 43.5 percent over last year.
The June 30 race at Chicagoland Speedway, for example, produced two green-flag passes for the lead in the final eight laps, as Kyle Larson swapped the top spot with race winner Alex Bowman.
Overall, through Sunday’s race at Daytona, Kyle Busch leads the series with 1,378 quality passes (defined as passes while running in the top 15). At the same point last year, Chase Elliott was tops in that category with 939. Much of the year-to-year difference is reflected in the enhanced quality of racing at intermediate tracks.
According to Joey Logano, reconfigured Kentucky, with two distinctly different sets of corners, will present a challenge to drivers as they search for clean air. This is the first time the Cup series will race at Kentucky with the higher-downforce, lower-horsepower configuration introduced this year.
“It’s just completely a different race track,” Logano said. “It doesn’t even look the same from what it used to be, and once again it’s going to be quite the different race track when you come there with this rules package. That’s where it’s really going affect us a lot on how we race each other.
“(Turns) 1 and 2 obviously is going to be pretty easy wide-open, but 3 and 4 is not going to be, and when you have cars that we have right now that, when you get in dirty air and that flat entry to Turn 3, I’d expect the track to widen out a little bit to where we’ll all be looking for air.”