Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Justin Haley Takes RWR to New Heights at Darlington

Rock the clock and turn back the years.

NASCAR’s annual throwback weekend took center stage for the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway (May 12), and a few underdogs were ready to steal the show.

Top Dog: Justin Haley

Taking a trip down memory lane to when equipment failures were prevalent in the sport, it wasn’t unusual to see a small team driver crack the top 10. But as time has worn on, finances have increased and the larger teams reap the resources, so seeing an underfunded team in the top 10 at Darlington has become a rare occurrence.

Leave it up to Justin Haley to fix that, as a ninth-place finish gave Rick Ware Racing its first top 10 on a non-superspeedway.

See also
Brad Keselowski Breaks 110-Race Winless Streak at Darlington, Earns 1st 2024 Win for Ford

Haley’s race reflected much of what we have seen from the No. 51 this season, starting out steady and methodically improving over the course of the event.

The Winamac, Ind. native started out nestled mid-pack in the 28th position. He grabbed three positions before the end of stage one to wrap up the stage in 25th.

After fighting a tight-handling car to begin stage two, Haley once again began to edge forward, surging to 17th when a caution flew with 20 to go in the stage. He wrapped it up in 14th.

Haley dropped out the top 15 briefly in the final stage, but he didn’t stay there long. Despite getting squeezed into the wall by Michael McDowell as the race approached lap 200, Haley began passing some of the larger teams of the sport. With about 40 laps remaining, he cracked the top 10 just as a caution flew for Kyle Larson spinning.

Last week at Kansas Speedway, a late caution foiled Haley’s attempt at a top 10. He didn’t let that repeat.

Haley held steady inside the top 10 to earn a strong finish at one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks.

As NASCAR heads into the All-Star week, RWR’s transactions are paying dividends. As Haley grabbed his first top 10 of 2024, it should be mentioned that RWR has an alliance with RFK Racing, the race’s winning team that saw both its drivers up front.

With Ford finding their stride at Darlington and Haley competing for a top 10 at back-to-back intermediate tracks, the patience at RWR is beginning to come full circle. That should have it and Haley optimistic for the future.

It might get the 25-year-old the fan votes he needs too.

How Does it Compare?

When you look back at recent Darlington renditions, Erik Jones is a common name at the top of the list in most of them. He finished 10th in the fall race of 2023, and he struck gold the year prior by winning the Southern 500.

In the other three events in the past five Darlington races, Haley’s finish also topped Ryan Preece‘s 12th-place finish in the 2021 fall race. Two other finishes topped his ninth-place run: a sixth by Harrison Burton a year ago and a third in the 2022 spring race by a driver named … oh, Haley himself.

Notable Underdog Runs

It has been highly noted how Ford teams have struggled this season. However, they covered half of the top 10 at “The Lady in Black” and took seven of the top 15 positions. Rounding out the top 15 was Front Row Motorsports’s Todd Gilliland, who impressed all weekend.

In Saturday’s practice, Gilliland topped the board in 20-lap averages, following it up with a 15th-place qualifying spot. That momentum carried into the race, as Gilliland quickly drove up into the top 10. As runs extended, the No. 38 got better, and he backed it up with a sixth-place stage one result.

Gilliland slid a little in stage two and had several close calls battling others around him, but he still finished stage two in 13th. When the final caution flew with 40 laps remaining, the Sherrills Ford, N.C. native was shown in 12th. He lost three positions over the course of the final run, but he held on to grab his second consecutive top 15 and fourth in six races.

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Just outside the top 15 in 16th was Corey LaJoie. Sporting a throwback honoring his 2012 ARCA East win at Bowman Gray Stadium, LaJoie had a much-needed solid race. Stage finishes of 21st only set up a final stage that saw “the grape car” run inside the top 20 for most of it. In the end, LaJoie scored his first top 20 on a non-superspeedway this season.

The RFK/RWR success was a collective effort across the board, as Kaz Grala finished it off with an 18th-place run. Grala’s result carries even more weight considering that he started in the basement in 34th. Carrying a Parnelli Jones tribute, Grala fell a lap down early but took the wave-around in stage two to get back on the lead lap. That’s just what he needed, as the No. 15 sliced and diced its way into the top 20. It is Grala’s third top 20 in 11 starts.

It was great to see Erik Jones return to racing after suffering a fractured vertebrae three weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway. And while the 2022 Southern 500 winner did not contend up front like we’ve seen in the past, he grabbed a respectable top 20 in 19th, a good step forward in returning from a back injury.

It did seem like the Byron, Mich. native had to shake off some rust. While he struggled with loose-handling conditions at several points during the event, Jones’ forward progress was slow and stagnant at times. However, air pressure adjustments and gained track position aided him as the race unfolded. Starting the final stage in 24th, the Legacy Motor Club driver inched forward to grab his fourth top 20 in his last five outings.

What They’re Saying

Haley (ninth): “We had a really good Rick Ware Racing No. 51 Ford Mustang Dark Horse today. From the moment we unloaded it was super into the track and fast. We kind of decided to go with the No. 6 team’s setup and in the end, he won and we had a great race. Overall good day, great execution on pit road and we cleaned up a lot of little things. It’s really cool to bring home a top-10 for Rick, everyone on the team, and all of the guests from NC Fraternal Order of Police and the families and friends of the fallen officers who we carried with us on the car today.”

Grala (18th): “Really good recovery today by our No. 15 group. We started the race a little behind but dialed in our handling by the third stage. RWR brought two excellent cars this weekend, and we both brought home great points. We’ll keep the momentum rolling into the next few races.”

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

For the first time this season, Haley stands on top of the mountain with the gold medal around his neck. Gilliland notched his second consecutive silver medal while LaJoie earns his second bronze of 2024.

Gold: Jones (3x), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2x), Carson Hocevar (2x), LaJoie, John Hunter Nemechek (2x), AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric, Haley

Silver: Gilliland (4x), Allmendinger (2x), Burton, Hocevar, Haley, Zane SmithTy DillonAnthony Alfredo, Nemechek

Bronze: Nemechek (3x), Stenhouse (3x), Gilliland (2x), LaJoie (2x), Grala, Shane van Gisbergen, Hocevar, Jones

See also
NASCAR 102: The 5 Best & 5 Worst 2024 NASCAR Throwback Schemes

Small Team ‘Throwback’ of the Week

At the center of all the throwback nostalgia are the paint schemes that teams roll out to honor racing’s past. It has become a fan favorite weekend for schemes, and plenty of underdogs brought back some memories with their looks. For this week, here are the top underdog throwbacks from each series.

NASCAR Cup Series:

As mentioned earlier, Grala threw it back to Parnelli Jones’ 1969 Ford Mustang. With the white stripes down the side, the correct number font placed inside a circle and even small details like the Ford logo on the quarter panel, this scheme hit different compared to its peers. FOX Sports broadcaster Mike Joy also dubbed it his favorite Cup throwback.

NASCAR Xfinity Series:

Feast your eyes on this beauty! Bringing back our inner child, Brennan Poole honored Kyle Petty by throwing back to his 1997 Hot Wheels car. What really tops it off is how the sponsor gets in on the fun. CW & Sons changed its font to fit the Hot Wheels logo, and even the contingency sponsors were altered to reflect the ride. No wonder it won best in show for Xfinity.

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series:

In what might be the first Buck Baker throwback since Throwback Weekend was introduced in 2015, Freedom Racing Enterprises took it all the way back to his 1949 Oldsmobile for Spencer Boyd‘s throwback. It brings back the nostalgia of two-toned cars that were simple yet fast looking.

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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