BY EDGAR THOMPSON
Justin Haley beat the longest odds in the field to win Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400.
It took a sure thing to get the 20-year-old to Victory Lane.
The bad weather that plagued Daytona International Speedway all weekend returned like clockwork Sunday afternoon to deliver Haley a potentially career-changing win during just his third race in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
“It’s truly a blessing,” Haley said. “I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega. It’s unreal.
“The stars aligned.”
Officials halted the race due to lightning at Lap 127 and eventually ended it two hours and 12 minutes later with 33 laps remaining as rain drenched the 2.5-mile super-speedway.
The decision handed Haley his first career win just two days after a disappointing runner-up finish during the Xfinity Series race. Haley finished a spot ahead of 21-year William Byron, followed by seven-time Cup season champion Jimmie Johnson, Ty Dillon and Ryan Newman.
“It makes that second-place finish Friday a lot better,” Haley said.
Despite Haley’s strong showing during Friday night’s Firecracker 250, no one expected him to be a factor during the Cup Series event. The native of Winamac, Ind., entered Sunday with 500-to-1 odds to win, the worst in the 40-car field.
To overcome the odds, Haley needed to avoid a 17-car pile-up that derailed the hopes of many of NASCAR’s biggest names. He then benefited from veteran Kurt Busch’s decision to enter pit road during the last caution lap before officials red-flagged the race at 3:20 p.m.
Busch led the race at the time of the decision but sat in the No. 18 spot when drivers were sent to pit road due to lightning in the area.
“They had to make a judgment call and they made a judgment call,” said Busch, a 31-time winner. “The biggest challenge was just trying to decide when that last lightning bolt was going to strike.”
When the race began shortly after 1 p.m., conditions were steamy and the skies were friendly.
But drivers soon found themselves in a race against the elements, eventually leading to a dust-up between Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer that would change the course of the race.
Pandemonium on 119
With reigning 500 winner Denny Hamlin having moved into the lead ahead of Dillon, Bowyer made a charge on the outside of the track in the No. 14 Ford.
Right on Dillon’s bumper entering in Turn 1, Bowyer suddenly dove to the inside, but Dillon gave no quarter. The bold move and ensuing block caused Dillon to lose control of his No. 3 Chevrolet, leading to pandemonium on Lap 119.
Bowyer, Dillon and Chase Elliott would sustain too much damage to return to racing. Meanwhile, a host of other cars, including those of Hamlin, Stage 1 winner Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Erik Jones, were caught up in the chaos and were knocked off the lead lap.
“I guess he didn’t want me to pass him,” Bowyer said. “It’s just part of racing like this.”
Dillon said the weather played into his bold decision-making.
Lightning was in the area and 100 laps were completed, making the race official. Dillon, who won Stage 2 and led a race-high 46 laps, said he was concerned the race could be called at any moment.
“I was being aggressive and trying to get the lead,” Dillon said. “I was trying to get a race win. We had a fast car. I hate it ended that way.”
Dillon’s disappointing loss was Haley’s unexpected gain.
Haley was in the 27th spot at the time of the crash. He doubted he would have been able to hold the lead if the race had restarted.
“We probably would have gotten ate up in the restart there,” Haley said.
After the initial lightning delay, drivers even returned to their cars to prepare to run the final laps. In this case, lightning would strike twice, eventually ending the race and earning Haley the one of the most improbable victories ever at Daytona International Speedway.
“There was no expectation to win,” Haley said. “It never even was a thought in my mind.”