Craig Murto

Craig Murto

Justin Haley’s win in the rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway was nothing short of a miracle.

In fact, even in legal terms, it’s accurate to say it was brought about by an “act of God.”

All of the teams knew rain and lightning were not far off as track cleanup crews removed the carnage following “the big one,” brought about by an aggressive block gone bad at the front of the field. Some of the teams in contention pit as soon as they could, others stayed out until they saw an indication the race would actually restart.

With fewer than 40 laps to go in the 160-lap affair, Kurt Busch was shown as the leader. But as soon as the field was given the signal they would go green the next time around, Busch and a number of cars that stayed out jumped onto pit road for fresh tires and fuel.

But Spire Motorsports crew chief Peter Suspenzo chose to keep driver Justin Haley on track, to restart as the leader. The team’s average finish in its first full season is below 32nd, and with weather in the area chances were the race wouldn’t see the full distance. Suspenzo hoped that Haley, in only his third start in NASCAR’s top division, could hang on to bring the team its best finish.

Then, as the cars headed down the backstretch prepared to restart, an act of God occurred: Lightning struck within 8 miles of the speedway. This forced the caution lights back on, and the cars to be parked on pit road for the mandatory half-hour wait for lightning to leave the area.

Kurt Busch cried that NASCAR stole the race from him, but of course NASCAR does not control the weather. And like everybody else, officials waited and watched, hoping to finish the final 33 laps.

The half-hour clock almost ran out at least once before another nearby lightning strike, then the rains came. Eventually Haley was declared the winner, with William Byron and Jimmie Johnson second and third.

Haley is 20 years old, originally from Winamac, Indiana. He began racing Quarter Midgets at the age of 9. In 2014 he began racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, where he won the championship in 2016.

His first Truck Series start came in 2015 for his uncle Todd Braun and Braun Motorsports. Haley eventually went full-time Truck racing in 2017, and in 2018 scored three wins. This season he’s been racing in the Xfinity series full time for Kaulig Racing, and finished second to teammate Ross Chastain in the Xfinity race at Daytona on Friday night.

Spire Motorsports is a subsidiary of Spire sports and Entertainment, an American talent management agency, motorsports consulting and ownership firm that represents drivers, sponsors and teams in NASCAR and IndyCar. When Furniture Row racing was being dissolved, owner Barney Visser called upon Spire and its president, Ty Norris, to help sell his NASCAR charter. Eventually Spire went ahead and bought the charter, and has been fielding cars in Cup full-time this season. The team’s first race was in conjunction with Ganassi Racing, utilizing the No. 40 in driver Jamie McMurray’s final Daytona 500. Since then the team has campaigned the No. 77 Camaro, with numerous drivers including Reed Sorenson, Quin Houff, Garrett Smithley and D.J. Kennington, as well as Haley.

The people who compete at NASCAR’s top level are all among the best. The circumstances that determine who finishes first and who finishes last week to week are often complicated, and related to money and resources. Just because a driver or team does not contend for wins each week doesn’t mean there is no talent among them.

Sometimes factors such as weather or fuel mileage create unique situations in a race. That’s where a smart crew chief on an underfunded team can take advantage of the situation, often by gambling as Suspenzo did when he left Haley in front of the field with the top runners lined up directly behind him, many with fresh tires and fuel enough to go the distance.

There is no disgrace in winning on a gamble; a win is a win, and all are deserved. Even if that gamble is aided by a well-timed miracle, such as a lightning strike that ends the race with your car in front, you still get the trophy.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.