Justin Haley wins bizarre, rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400

by Justin Nguyen

Anyone who placed bets on Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 will enjoy their new money in the bank. Postponed a day due to rain, the race was once again halted by thunderstorms following a major wreck on lap 119 before NASCAR officially ended it, enabling Haley to win his maiden Monster Energy Cup Series race in just his third series start.

As rain plagued the weekend, qualifying was called off and points leader Joey Logano started on the pole alongside Kyle Busch. William Byron, who wrecked in Thursday practice, started at the rear after moving to a backup car, while Haley, Kyle Larson, B.J. McLeod, Joey Gase, Brendan Gaughan, and Matt DiBenedetto were sent to the back for unapproved adjustments.

Initially scheduled for Saturday evening, the race was postponed to Sunday afternoon when rain forced the track drying process to come to a halt.

Stages #1 and 2

The importance of manufacturer alliances were quickly evident as Logano and fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick teamed up in the draft against the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Busch and Denny Hamlin. By lap ten, the field organised into single file.

On lap 35, with green-flag pit stops nearing, the Chevrolet drivers formed their own lane. Three laps later, the Fords pitted together for mostly fuel-only stops. When the Toyotas and Chevrolets approached pit road, Hamlin collided with Busch with fellow JGR driver Martin Truex Jr. next to him.

Once stops ended, Harvick was the leader until Logano took the position. At the back, the Chevrolets began their charge up front with Chase Elliott leading the way. By the green-checkered flag on lap 50, Logano led a Ford trio in Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, and Harvick, followed by Elliott, Daniel Suárez, Clint Bowyer, Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Stage #2 began on lap 55 with Elliott and Stenhouse leading the field. Although Stenhouse claimed the lead a lap later, he could only lead two laps before he was clipped by Kurt Busch and spun into the grass to bring out the yellow flag. Following stops, Austin Dillon became the leader for the lap 61 restart.

Blaney led from laps 64 to 67 before Dillon reclaimed the spot. On lap 75, Busch hit the wall to produce another caution, with some drivers electing to pit under yellow.

On lap 83, Keselowski was hit from behind by Harvick, while David Ragan spun in front. Daniel Hemric and Suárez were also collected as the two slid onto the apron. The race resumed on lap 87 with Dillon leading a trio of Hendrick Motorsports drivers in Alex Bowman, William Byron, and Elliott. Bowyer became the leader on lap 97, but could not maintain it as Dillon took the top position back.

With rain approaching the track, Dillon held off Bowman to score the stage win. Byron, Elliott, Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Johnson, Stenhouse, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Logano rounded out the top ten.

Stage #3

The final stage commenced on lap 106 with Logano leading Ryan Newman. Dillon and Hamlin also spent time in front before the former finally took the lead.

On lap 119, Dillon cleared Hamlin on the outside line with help from Bowyer. When Bowyer attempted to make his move on the leader as they neared turn one, Dillon was clipped when he tried to block, spinning him into the pack in the turn and collecting multiple cars. Byron, Johnson, and Ty Dillon successfully squeezed by the chaos to escape the wreck. By the end of the carnage, the victims were a laundry list of drivers that also included Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell, Parker Kligerman, Blaney, Bowman, Elliott, Larson, Logano, Stenhouse, Truex, and Wallace.

Kurt Busch became the leader, but pitted under caution and surrendered the position to Haley. Moments later, the red flag came out for lightning. Haley, running his third career Cup race for the upstart Spire Motorsports, had finished second in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Daytona and controversially lost out in the 2018 Xfinity event.

“This is my last planned (race for Spire) right here,” Haley said in an interview with NBC during the red flag. “Maybe if I get this win or luck or whatnot […] I’m focused on the Xfinity side of things, and we’re in a pretty good spot; we were eighth in points over there with Kaulig Racing. Hopefully, we can run for the championship over there, where they’ve got really fast Chevrolets.

“Running another Chevy this weekend and, my stomach’s turning.”

By this point, the top ten consisted of Haley leading Byron, Johnson, Dillon, Newman, Corey LaJoie, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Matt Tifft, and Busch.

After approximately an hour of waiting and track drying, the red flag was lifted before lightning returned, resulting in yet another delay. Further wait produced no results, and at 5:30 PM Eastern, NASCAR finally decided to end the race.

The victory comes in just Haley’s third Cup race and Spire’s maiden season. For crew chief Peter Sospenzo, it is his first win since 2003 at Richmond Raceway with Joe Nemechek; coincidentally, the race was also marred by rain. On Twitter, the team posted:

As an Xfinity regular, Haley is not eligible to compete in the Cup Series playoffs.

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