Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Justin Haley Beats the Texas Heat, Matches Season-Best Finish

Top Dog: Justin Haley

We all know the saying “everything is bigger in Texas.” That accurately defined the drama in the 2022 AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (Sept. 25). A track record 16 cautions and tires that typically lasted about 35 laps defined the race a week after similar problems occurred at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In a race that spanned nearly six hours, Justin Haley was able to survive the Texas heat to earn a surprise third-place finish with Kaulig Racing.

Haley began the race from the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments. He drove up to as high as 19th early in the race, then was hit with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire late in stage one. That relegated him to 29th by stage end.

However, an early highlight showed flashes of what was to come for Haley. On a restart with 22 to go in stage one, he charged up from 30th to 22nd place. Passing was a challenge due to dirty air and limited groove options, so the move was impressive from his No. 31 Chevrolet.

With a caution-filled race and the challenge of track position, Haley’s team opted to pit several times in stage two, forcing him to constantly battle his way forward. By the end of that stage, the 23-year-old driver was scored in 19th position.

Rain immediately followed the conclusion of stage two, forcing NASCAR officials to wave the red flag and park the cars. However, a number of teams pitting before the stoppage allowed Haley to jump to seventh when the race resumed.

After holding strong inside the top 10, a caution for Chris Buescher brought Haley back down pit road for four tires. That preceded back-to-back wrecks involving the race leader. When the second of those crashes, this one involving Kevin Harvick, brought out the yellow, Haley was called to pit road for two tires, propelling him back up from 13th to seventh.

While other drivers either spun, hit the wall, or ran out of the groove, Haley took advantage of their mistakes, moving up accordingly. A stream of steady, consistent lap times positioned him in third during the final stretch of the race. The impressive run only grew more outstanding when Haley was able to hold off a hard-charging Ryan Blaney behind him in the last few laps.

If you’re Kaulig Racing and the No. 31 team, Texas may be the bright spot of the year thus far. Finishing third at an intermediate is an accomplishment in itself. But doing so in a survivor-style race, where tire failures took out several top contenders, made the run even more satisfying.

Haley’s third-place performance matches his best finish of 2022 (third at Darlington Raceway in May). The result is Haley’s second top five and third top 10 of 2022, while he also scored his fourth consecutive finish of 19th or better.

It is certainly the momentum this team craved heading into Talladega Superspeedway, a track type that Kaulig has flourished on. Haley has two NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at the track himself.

Does that mean we’re looking at winner number 20 this season? There is absolutely a chance.

Underdog Highlights

Where do we begin? Nearly all the underdogs provided a highlight in one way or another Sunday.

We’ll start with Erik Jones, who erased two rough weeks following his Darlington win to score a sixth-place result. A spin in practice did not start the weekend off right for the No. 43 team, but Jones made up for it and then some during the race.

Jones drove up to the top 10 in stage one after starting 27th, but a late pit stop put him 16th at the end of the stage. Then, the team got a scare in stage two when Jones reported he felt like something broke in his car.

Fortunately, it was nothing catastrophic and Jones was able to continue. When the yellow for rain flew, Jones was scored in second and was likely praying for an early end to the afternoon.

After restarting inside the top five, Jones bounced within the top 15 through a flurry of yellows. A close call while battling Ross Chastain nearly resulted in the No. 43 hitting the wall, but Jones was able to save it. In the closing laps, he drove up to sixth and nearly got Chase Briscoe for fifth before the checkered flag flew.

The result was Jones’s eighth top 10 at Texas in 12 career starts, an impressive resume.

It’s a stat line Michael McDowell would love to have here. While Texas is likely associated with the moment fans learned who he was, back in 2008, it’s not a fond memory for the Front Row Motorsports driver.

14 years later, McDowell is having a career year and scored his best Texas finish in 11th. It can be argued heavily that McDowell should have earned a top 10, too. After starting in fifth, McDowell finished 10th in both stages. But it was what followed stage two that nearly earned much more than a top 10 for him.

After staying out following the stage, a rain shower forced the cars to pit road with McDowell in the lead. Given that the race was official, all the Front Row Motorsports team was wanting was the call to end the race.

Unfortunately for McDowell, the race did restart, though the No. 34 Ford held tough inside the top 10 for much of the final stage. Crazy restarts and varying strategies caused McDowell to just miss out on a top-10 result, but it was once again a performance on an intermediate this team may not have expected a few short years ago.

Corey LaJoie had a strong race to celebrate his 31st birthday, outlasting the chaos to finish in 14th. LaJoie had to make a pit stop early on following a caution after reporting that his car wouldn’t turn, but the team believed that it was a simply a bad reaction from running in too much PJ1 resin. From there, LaJoie did what many drivers couldn’t: survive. He now has back-to-back top-15 finishes for the first time this season.

It was a solid race for Ty Dillon as well. After believing to have suffered right rear damage early on from contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Dillon was able to bring home a 16th-place result. The various strategies surrounding track position allowed the No. 42 to flirt with the top 10 at times. A late pit stop and dirty air prevented Dillon from finishing that high, but his sixth top 20 in the last eight races is a confidence booster for someone still seeking a 2023 ride.

Once again, bad luck cast a shadow over a strong performance from Stenhouse. After overcoming the contact and spin with Dillon, strategy put Stenhouse in a strong position in the late going. Stenhouse assumed the lead on lap 276 before getting passed by eventual race winner Tyler Reddick five laps later. While running third on lap 299, the right rear tire went down on Stenhouse’s No. 47, sending him into the outside wall and nearly into Austin Cindric. The damage significantly hindered Stenhouse going forward, causing him to finish 27th.

Perhaps the scariest moment of the race and one of the scariest of the season happened on lap 168. Cody Ware’s No. 51 got loose in turn 4 and he overcorrected, sending the car nearly head-on into the outside wall. The car rode alongside the fence before rolling across the infield grass and into the pit road wall. Ware climbed out of the car but fell to the ground twice. Medical personnel eventually placed him on a stretcher before taking him by ambulance to the infield care center.

Thankfully, that’s where Ware was treated and released. He suffered no broken bones, nor a concussion, but he did complain of his ankle causing pain.

Underdogs Sound Off

Justin Haley (third): “This was a long, challenging race. We finished third at Darlington earlier in the season and started pretty much last there as well, so it’s pretty cool to have another really great run for this Kaulig Racing team. Our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1 definitely wasn’t what I liked, but we kept working on it and actually when it turned dark, we got some good track position and made a heck of a run out of it.

“I’m really proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing. At the end, I was just worried that the right rear is going to go down, so I was just trying to make it to the end. P3 is everything we could want right now.”

Erik Jones (sixth): “It ended up being a solid day for our FOCUSfactor Chevy team. The day started out a little rough, we were just struggling with the balance and got it better late in the race. We ended up taking tires with about 30 laps to go and were able to come back through the field for a sixth-place finish. I’m proud of that.

“We struggled at Texas in the All-Star Race and we got a lot better from then to today. It’s good to have a good week. We needed one after the last few weeks. Hopefully, we can carry some momentum to Talladega next weekend and try to close one out there.”

Ty Dillon (16th): “Today was a back-and-forth day with strategy. Our Black Rifle Camaro had good speed. We brought a good piece, and I thought it raced well, just the strategy was kind of back and forth. I think we made the perfect call there at the end on when to pit and it was looking like we were going to get a top 10. I just caught a little bit of the slime in turn 1 and had a big moment and lost spots, unfortunately.

“I’m proud of our effort, proud of the speed in our Camaro. It’s been a lot of fun to drive these fast cars the last couple of weeks.”

Noah Gragson (21st): “Solid run by our No. 16 Freedom by Ed Morse team. We had a lot of fun out there and ran up in the top 10 for a lot of the race. I’m really thankful and grateful for the opportunity with Kaulig Racing, Freedom by Ed Morse, and the entire Morse family. I had a lot of fun out there.

“It was a long, long race. We had some strong runs there throughout the race and got sent by the No. 11 late in the race when we were running like 10th or 11th. That’s part of it. You’ll have that, but we’ll keep working hard and try and be better in the future.”

Top 10 Underdog Moments since 2000: No. 7

The first half of the 2010 LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway was largely dominated by Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, with David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr. (who was his MWR teammate at the time) and Jeff Gordon remaining fixtures near the front for most of the event. Johnson led 92 of the 267 laps, but the character of the race changed when Johnson spun on lap 137. Later on, the driver of the No. 48 hit the wall and made an unscheduled stop, taking him out of contention for victory.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate in Gordon stepped up to the plate as McMurray fell to the latter end of the top five. On lap 213, fans got a front row seat to the legitimacy of Reutimann potentially winning when he took the lead from Gordon. The No. 00 driver never looked back, leading 52 laps and holding off Carl Edwards to earn his second and final career Cup victory. In fact, Reutimann gave MWR the first two of their seven victories as an organization. 

Small Team Scheme of the Week

A day after winning his fourth consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series race a day ago, Noah Gragson climbed into a new scheme for Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Freedom by Ed Morse was on the car, sporting a patriotic look with the American flag streaming down the side. Gragson ran inside the top 10 at several points in the race, but a slip-up in turn 1 late cost Gragson several positions, dropping him to 21st in the final running order.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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