DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Teeth chattering, hands shaking, stomach churning, NASCAR driver Justin Haley anxiously waited for race officials to pull the plug on a rain-wrecked weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
A 500-1 long shot making just his third Cup Series start, Haley won the rain-postponed, rain-shortened race Sunday afternoon. He inherited the lead after a 17-car accident decimated the field and a lightning strike forced NASCAR to stop the race.
Haley waited out the delay in a conference room inside the historic speedway, admittedly too nervous to do more than pray for the skies to open so the race would be called once and for all.
The wait of 2 hours, 12 minutes was well worth it for the 20-year-old Indiana native driving for first-year team Spire Motorsports. Haley and his team celebrated in a makeshift indoor victory lane and were warmly greeted by manufacturer Chevrolet, which has now won two straight races after a miserable start to the season.
Sunday's top four finishers were in Chevy Camaros, with William Byron second and Jimmie Johnson third for Hendrick Motorsports, followed by Germain Racing's Ty Dillon. Ryan Newman was fifth in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.
"I had no expectation to win this race," said Haley, admitting he'd have quickly been passed for the lead if the race resumed. "We were just trying to keep the fenders on it. That was the whole goal of the race, to finish with no scratches. Yes, I really did pray for rain."
The race was scheduled for Saturday night but got forced into Sunday afternoon because of persistent rain and lightning that washed out most of this final Independence Day weekend party at NASCAR's birthplace. After being held in conjunction with the Fourth of July since 1959, Daytona's annual second Cup Series race of the season is being moved to August as the regular-season finale next year, with Indianapolis Motor Speedway taking the July spot.
As the clouds darkened over the track at the start of the third and final stage, drivers picked up the intensity and started racing as if the event would end at the first drop of rain.
Clint Bowyer pulled out of line and tried to pass Austin Dillon for the lead, but Dillon would not relinquish the spot. His Chevrolet wiggled, Bowyer hit him from behind in his Ford, and because they were at the front of the field, it caused a huge wreck.
"I guess he didn't want me to pass him," Bowyer said. "I got under him and he blocked, and he just finally wrecked us all."
Dillon, a former Daytona 500 winner, defended his racing.
"I really thought it was kind of urgent because of the lightning and rain coming. It's part of this kind of racing. I was being aggressive and trying to keep the lead," Dillon said as the sky crackled overhead, "and there's a lightning strike right there."
With that, NASCAR had to stop the race and bring the remaining cars to pit road as a safety precaution. The move came just minutes after Kurt Busch, who had slid through the massive wreck to take the lead, made a quick pit stop.
Busch relinquished the lead because he thought the race was one lap away from resuming, and Xfinity Series regular Haley cycled into the lead. It was big for both him and Spire, which started in NASCAR as an agency representing drivers and sponsors but last year purchased one of the team charters Furniture Row Racing left behind when it folded at the end of last season.
Co-owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr took out a $6 million bank loan for the charter, hoping the value of it would repay the note while helping them transition into a true race team. They needed the big wreck, Busch's decision to pit and then yet another heavy rainstorm to become winners in their 17th Cup Series race.
"It's obviously a huge, huge moment to win at the pinnacle of our sport, at Daytona no less. This is it. This is 'The World Center of Racing,'" Puchyr said. "We just want to be in control of our own destiny. We've put a lot of money in a lot of people's pockets in this garage. There's a lot of people out there that think we're doing this as a cash grab the way the charter system works.
"Quite frankly, that's not true. Jeff Dickerson said, 'We believe in this sport. We believe in the platform that NASCAR provides.' This is the American dream. We did it early, and it's not lost on me that luck was on our side today. But I'm not going to feel bad about at all. I'm going to love it. We're going to continue to be 'The Little Engine That Could' and build this thing as best we can and go from there."