Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Heartbreak Strikes Justin Haley in Chicago

Author’s note: While Shane van Gisbergen was making his first career NASCAR Cup Series start, he has 462 starts and three titles in the Repco Supercars Championship, a series where several features of the car resemble that of the NASCAR Next Gen car. Therefore, due to several factors, he will not be featured in the column.

See also
Shane van Gisbergen Shocks the World With NASCAR Chicago Street Race Win

Top Dog: Justin Haley

Let’s briefly travel back to the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Already postponed to Sunday from its Saturday night slot due to weather, more rain was on the way during the race. That sped up the desperation from drivers to make a move, eventually sparking the Big One.

With a handful of cars escaping the junkyard, it appeared to be Kurt Busch‘s race to lose if the rain indeed did hit. But that changed quickly. Busch pitted with other drivers, handing the lead to none other than Justin Haley, making just his third career start with significantly underfunded Spire Motorsports.

That’s when a lightning strike led to a red flag. One strike led to another, the skies opened, and Haley pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history.

Flash to the present and lightning nearly struck twice for Haley in a historic race for NASCAR on the Chicago street course (July 2). This time, however, it was a much different scenario.

Now in better equipment with Kaulig Racing, Haley made a splash in the race on a day that resembled a monsoon in the Windy City.

After an incident in practice caused Haley to not make a qualifying lap, it was an uphill battle (or paddle, I should say) for him going forward. Starting in 37th, Haley moved up 12 spots to finish stage one in 25th. Moving to slicks in stage two, the 24-year-old climbed into the top 15 while others slid around him. However, a pit stop later in the stage led to a middling 23rd-place result.

When NASCAR announced that the race would be shortened by 25 laps, you could feel the aggression rise like Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. And smiling through it all was Haley’s No. 31 team, prepped and ready for the final stage.

After a caution ended stage two, crew chief Trent Owens kept Haley on the track, cycling him right into the lead.

In spite of several cautions, Haley kept his machine out front, beating all those on the same pit cycle. However, his older tires lost advantage more and more to the likes of van Gisbergen with each caution. On a restart with five laps to go, the disadvantage took over as van Gisbergen went by for the lead. Another yellow gave Haley one more look, but it was not enough to overcome the three-time V8 Supercars Champion.

“I was really struggling under the braking zones,” Haley told NBC Sports after the race. “I felt like I could get off the corner better than anyone. But what are you going to do? [Gisbergen] had 16-lap fresher tires, so it was just strategy.”

That said, Haley was able to take the positives from a weekend which started with him wrecking the primary car.

“I felt like I put us behind yesterday, putting it in the tire barrier, and from there it just kind of trickles and whatnot,” he added. “What is there to be disappointed about?”

Rain may have been a main factor in the race, but it was poetic how this time, it was Haley adapting to the conditions nearly better than anyone else to come short of earning his second career win. It’s a sign of the growth from the Winamac, Ind., native in four years of running at the Cup level.

The result is Haley’s best with Kaulig, and his 23 laps led were his first of the season. With more road courses and superspeedways on the agenda before the playoffs, keep a close eye on the No. 31 team moving forward.

Who Impressed?

Another road course down, another top 10 for Michael McDowell. The Front Row Motorsports driver was a factor near the front of the field for most of the race. McDowell qualified sixth for the event and finished both stages in fifth, establishing himself as a contender for the win.

The 25-lap cutback hurt McDowell, though, as other drivers playing strategy leapfrogged him during pit stops, backing the No. 34 to 19th. However, the 38-year-old dodged the calamity and traffic in front of him, driving up to seventh by the end of the race. McDowell now sits 18th in points, just 10 back of the playoff cutline. And with Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis road course still ahead this regular season, McDowell has a realistic path to the playoffs.

Despite some early contact with Alex Bowman and a spin on lap 49, Corey LaJoie took advantage of strategy in the final stage, moving him inside the top 15 after being mired deep in the field for much of the race. The Spire Motorsports driver held serve from there, finishing the event in 14th. LaJoie is now three-for-three on top-20 road course finishes in 2023, and he has earned a top 20 in three of the past four races.

Like many drivers, Erik Jones‘ day was eventful to say the least. On the very first lap, Jones overshot turn 6, taking Brad Keselowski and Noah Gragson into the tire barrier with him. However, Jones worked his way back through the field to get up to 13th by the end of stage two. The Byron, Mich., native flirted with the top 15 for the remainder of the race, turning in a solid recovery in 16th. In face of the trials the No. 43 team has faced this season, Jones has quietly put three finishes of 18th or better together in the past four races.

Chicago was definitely circled on AJ Allmendinger‘s calendar, who entered the event within striking distance of the playoff cutline. And for the first two stages, it looked he was going to continue to pull a Jaws and eat into the deficit, pulling stage results of eighth and ninth.

However, on lap 49, Chicago rush hour took form in NASCAR Cup Series cars after a parking lot formed in turn 11. Allmendinger would receive minor damage in the crash, but recover to 12th before falling to 17th by the end of the race. The No. 16 showed plenty of speed, but it was a missed opportunity overall.

Once again, Todd Gilliland quietly (sort of) pieced together a top-20 result in 19th. It was a rollercoaster race for the sophomore driver, who got as high as ninth but also dropped outside the top 30 at one point. Mixed in between was his avoidance of the lap 49 yard sale and contact with Ross Chastain on lap 53. However, Gilliland marched back to earn his ninth top 20 of the year.

Jenson Button looked as though he would be a contender for much of the weekend, qualifying inside the top 10 in just his second Cup start. The 2009 F1 champion finished stage one in 10th, but then encountered trouble in stage two. While trying to pit, Button cut across Chris Buescher‘s nose, sending him for a spin.

Between the spin and strategy, Button was mired in the pack, resulting in a 21st-place finish.

Underdogs Who Built the Sport

Van Gisbergen’s win brings back the nostalgia of road course ringers having success in select starts. One driver who has built a legacy for his road course prowess was Ron Fellows.

Fellows was regularly called upon by teams during the 1990s and 2000s to drive on road courses. He made his Cup debut in 1995 for Canaska Motorsports, finishing 35th.

In his lone Cup start in 1999, Fellows nearly pulled off an upset in the No. 87 running for Joe Nemechek at Watkins Glen International. Fellows was in contention for much of the race, leading three laps on the day. A caution late in the event gave him an opportunity to beat NASCAR’s dominant driver at the time: Jeff Gordon. However, Gordon edged Fellows on the final restart, leaving the Canadian in second. Despite this near-miss, it made a name for Fellows in the Cup garage.

Fellows made 21 more starts in the Cup Series from 2000 to 2013, scoring two more top fives and four additional top 10s, including leading 21 laps at Sonoma Raceway in 2003. He also scored four wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Beyond that, Fellows owns Ron Fellows Performance Driving Schools and has advised many NASCAR drivers on road course tactics.

What They’re Saying

LaJoie (14th):

Small Team Scheme of the Race

Despite all the McDonald’s advertising around the track, Wendy’s still made its presence known in a big way in the inaugural Chicago Street Race. The fast-food chain sponsored Gragson for the third time this season, promoting its popular “Baconator.” Unfortunately, turn 6 wasn’t a fan, a spot where he wrecked on four occasions. Gragson would finish 25th.

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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