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Recently turning 18 years old, Haley was finally old enough to tackle a superspeedway in Saturday’s ARCA Racing Series event at Talladega Superspeedway. Driving the No. 28 for MDM Motorsports, Haley earned his approval for NASCAR superspeedway competition by winning an overtime race in his first start of 2017.
With the victory in his back pocket, Haley now approaches his first 1.5-mile race of Kansas Speedway for Friday’s Toyota Tundra 250 in the Truck Series.
We spoke with Haley before his first Truck start of the season at Martinsville Speedway and again after his ARCA victory to discuss his confidence moving forward, his expectations for 2017 and how he manages his rise up the NASCAR ladder.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Quite the weekend for you grabbing the ARCA win at Talladega. How did that race go for you? it seemed pretty exciting.
Justin Haley: It was a pretty fun race, something I always wanted to do, run Talladega. And you can’t do it until you’re 18. Finally turning 18 a couple weeks ago was a pretty big opportunity for me. Obviously, I had to go and run Talladega to get approved for the Truck Series race there.
Qualifying got canceled which put a burden on us. Starting 23rd, we just stayed on the yellow line first half of the race. We found out we had a car that could suck up well, we started getting runs on the outside. Under the red flag, we had some electrical issues trying to re-fire the car. By the time I got the car re-fired, switched to battery No. 2, we lost track position. We decided to come and top it off on fuel because everyone was pretty close on fuel. The race fell in our place. Ended up winning it on the one-lap shootout.
Catanzareti: It got pretty wild at the end with the leaders running out of fuel. Mentality-wise, what was going through your head when they started running out?
Haley: I knew we had plenty of fuel. I think we were like 15 laps to the good just because we came so late. I knew everyone else was saving fuel pretty big and I wasn’t having to save at all.
It was helpful on my end because it kind of boosted the whole moral of the team after having that issue. We were sitting there out front, feeling pretty good, plenty of fuel, all we had to do was to get through the gears smooth.
Catanzareti: Even afterwards, did you expect to be that strong? How was it to drive in that type of racing and how much did you actually learn?
Haley: I go into every race weekend — I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could win every single race. Obviously, that’s not true, because in racing there are a lot more races you lose than win. But if you don’t have the confidence in yourself to beat everyone else, its not going to happen.
There’s always the possibility I could win. I knew I had a good team in MDM Motorsports, they gave me a great car. We went out there, just focused on our own thing, me and Kevin Bellicourt focused on our own deal, didn’t make friends. I learned a ton in the draft, figuring out how to make drafts. I’m excited to go truck racing.
Catanzareti: There are so many young drivers out there, you definitely must feel like you have to stand out. Do you feel like having a win, your first time at Talladega, you have stood out amongst them heading full-time into Trucks?
Haley: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing in racing, trying to stand out from the other guys. Obviously, there are so many young drivers, so many of us that no matter how good you are, some don’t get the opportunity because it’s such a select few. Every race you can go out and win, compete in and prove yourself is something I’m truly blessed to do. Especially being at Talladega with NASCAR there on such a big platform made it even better.
Catanzareti: Now, we’re heading into Kansas, a new place to you. How is it different now? You’re a winner on one of those big tracks, do you feel different from this week to last?
Haley: We went and tested Charlotte last week and I struggled, I’m not going to lie. We were OK, we were probably a seventh-place truck which isn’t terrible but any time you’re not first, you’re looking to improve. It was my first 1.5-mile test, really just testing the waters. Charlotte is such a tough track, Kansas is more generic so I’m looking forward to getting there. The whole GMS team has been super helpful and have made the transition to these bigger, faster tracks amazing.
I’m looking forward to getting there, seeing what it’s like in race conditions, figuring out how the air is going to affect my truck and the racing.
Catanzareti: What surprised you most about that Charlotte test? Speaking to drivers, they say the little difference from the driver can make such a big difference on the track. The competition is closer, you’re going much faster than a short track. What surprised you most?
Haley: It’s just because you’re so wide-open and everything is gong so fast, you have to be so precise on what you’re doing. Short tracks, you can give up a little here and gain it there because you’re letting off the gas so much. [At Charlotte] you just always have to be on the gas. The smallest bit of steering input can slow you down the slightest bit. Just anything you do you have to have to be very precise. Getting that down to a tee is something I’m going to have to learn.
I kind of learned that at ‘Dega this weekend. Running the high side, you have to keep the momentum up because our cars don’t have that much motor in them, its’ restricted so you have to keep the wheel really smooth to keep that momentum up. Figuring out stuff like that is going to be big. The biggest thing Ill have to learn is just the race craft and the aero.
Catanzareti: Your first mile-and-a-half race. What are your expectations? Do you expect to top 10, 15. What would you like to see out of the weekend?
Haley: I would just like to see a good run. I am confident I have a team that can win, so if we put ourselves in the right position can we focus on ourselves we will try to go out and win that race. I feel like that’s the best thing we can do. I’m just looking at every weekend as a new opportunity to go out and prove myself.
Catanzareti: Is that what this season is really about? You missed the first couple races, you’re behind in points, so is it really about learning the trucks and getting that experience in?
Haley: Yeah, it put us in a tough position not being able to run the first two races. I can still go for Rookie of the Year but we’re just trying to go out and do our own thing. Like I said, go out and win races, that’s all we can do at this point and I have a team that can do it.
[Below questions took place the weekend of Haley’s first Truck Series start of 2017 at Martinsville Speedway.]
Catanzareti: GMS is a big team. You say you have confidence, is there pressure? Or does that confidence surpass that pressure?
Haley: I don’t know, I’m not sure how I’m feeling right now. I’m a little nervous but I’m eager to get going. I sat around for so long not racing so that makes it a little overpowering than nervous. Definitely, I can’t wait strap in and get back in my race mode.
Catanzareti: You have Johnny Sauter, a pretty top-notch teammate. Does he make it easier on a weekend like this?
Haley: Yeah for sure. I’m definitely leaning on not only him but our crew chiefs. Jerry Baxter and all of them. Having solid crew chiefs and a good team, there are so many resources, many people to talk to and get advice from.
Catanzareti: You’re coming into this year with a K&N East championship, what did you learn in K&N that you will never forget?
Haley: In K&N you had to conserve your tires, which is kind of going to come into play here. In Truck racing, you only get two or three sets of tires on the box. Just to race the racetrack and to race your car. The biggest thing is to conserve what you have underneath your car and make it last to the end. K&N racing does a fantastic job of that. You’re on the same tires all the way through the race.
Catanzareti: I spoke to Ben Rhodes, he moved up to XFINITY after his K&N championship, he said he moved up too quick. How much are you focused on not moving up too fast and learning at a steady pace?
Haley: To be honest with you, I probably should be a Cup driver but I’m not 18 yet. [Laughs] I’m just joking! No, I just have to take it one race at a time. I think having six or seven Truck starts, I think that will play into helping this year. It should all flow pretty easy but we’ll see how it goes.
Catanzareti: There are many drivers who don’t have an easy time when it comes to finding sponsorship and getting these rides. Here you are, you’re in. Parker Kligerman, Ryan Truex, they have tough times. How different is that for you?
Haley: I think anyone at this level has the ability to drive. Some of us are less fortunate than others. This world is definitely difficult on you, not just in the racing but in real life. Taking every day at a time and living your life is something I’ve learned over the past few years. It’s not all about racing, you have to back down, have family time. I’m only 17, I don’t have kids but it’s something you have to pay attention to.
If I don’t end up racing, then it wasn’t meant to be. You have to get the path God gives you and that’s the direction you’re going to go. You don’t have much choice.
Catanzareti: How appreciative are you to be here?
Haley: Man, I am more blessed than anything. I live a good life. I get to come out here and my job is racing cars for a living. I think I told my mom when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that all I wanted to do was start one Truck race and now here I am racing full time in the Truck Series. To look back at that to see how far I’ve come, it’s truly a blessing.
Catanzareti: You’re one of the young drivers out there. Do you feel pressure to go out and beat those guys or is there a bond among you guys?
Haley: There is definitely not a bond. I’m kind of on my own island, I like to keep it that way. I like to keep pretty private. Obviously, Kaz [Grala], Johnny, myself, we are all good buddies because we’re teammates. other than that, I like to keep private, keep to myself. I feel if I do that then I can focus more on my task at hand.
Doing that, I don’t really feel pressure to beat them. if I’m faster than them, then I’m faster than them. At the end of the day, it really comes down to how your truck is handling. You have to drive it, but we’re all good drivers, we all have talent.
Catanzareti: Does that make you more competitive?
Haley: There’s definitely more take than give, as you can say. On that aspect, you have to be smart, too. Yeah, I’m definitely really competitive. Whether it’s playing with my little sister on scooters, I like to try and beat her. Whatever it is, I’m definitely a competitive person.
Catanzareti: Eight months from now when November rolls around, what would you call a realistically successful season?
Haley: I think to call it successful is to go out every week and try our best. If we focus on ourselves and go out and do our jobs, whatever the results are Id be happy with it. Going out at 50 percent, I wouldn’t be happy, but 120 percent and you get wrecked every week, you can’t be disappointed with it. You can’t set some astronomical goal. If I were to put a goal on it, I would definitely want to challenge myself to make the playoffs considering I haven’t had two starts. That would be big.
Catanzareti: You used to go by JJ and now it’s Justin. Why was that changed?
Haley: It was just something I felt like I needed to do. JJ was just a family name and I used it because I thought it was cool. Just from a marketing standpoint, [Justin] was a lot easier and more recognizable name and less confusion.
Catanzareti: JJ Yeley, did you get called that all the time?
Haley: To be honest with you, I get more confused with Cameron Hayley than JJ Yeley. Definitely a lot of confusion on the aspect of my name.
About the author
Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.
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