DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Haley has won the rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, his first at NASCAR's top level.
- Justin Haley wins Coke Zero Sugar 400 race
- The win is his first at NASCAR's top level
- The race was postponed a day due to weather
Haley took the lead under caution -- Kurt Busch surrendered the top spot when he pitted for new tires -- and was declared the winner after heavy rain followed two lightning delays. There were 33 laps remaining when the 160-lap race was halted.
The 20-year-old Haley won't lock in a spot in the playoffs, though. He's a full-time driver in the second-tier Xfinity Series and was making his third Cup Series start -- all for newcomer Spire Motorsports. The team's No. 77 Chevrolet could secure a postseason bid, but only if it ends up in the top 30 in points.
Nonetheless, it was a fitting end for the final July race at NASCAR's most famous track.
The event, which was postponed a day because of rain, has been plagued by inclement weather and filled with unpredictable winners in recent years. It's moving to late August in 2020 -- the regular-season finale -- as part of NASCAR's significant schedule shake-up.
Rain started two hours before Saturday night's schedule green flag and continued on and off into the evening, and since drying the 2 1/2-mile track takes about two hours, NASCAR officials decided it would be better to race Sunday than into the wee hours of the night.
NASCAR has run at Daytona during the July 4th weekend since 1959 but is abandoning that tradition in a scheduling shake-up next season. Daytona will instead host the September regular-season finale, while the holiday weekend race will move to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Weather in part made Daytona amenable to surrendering the holiday weekend, every day since the track opened Thursday has been disrupted by either lightning or rain. Cup qualifying for Saturday night's race was canceled because lightning in the area prevented NASCAR access to inspect the cars.
The field was set by points, with Joey Logano scheduled to start on the front row alongside Kyle Busch.
Rain also delayed Friday night's Xfinity Series race, won by Ross Chastain, for 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Thick dark clouds dumped heavy rain over Daytona most of Saturday afternoon, spoiling the pre-race pomp and circumstances surrounding the proud NASCAR event. From 1959 through 1987, the race ran on July 4 before being moved to the Saturday of the closest weekend. From 1959 through 1997, the race started no later than 11 a.m.
The event was moved to prime time in 1998, and heavily promoted as the first under the lights at Daytona. But wildfires across Florida forced that event to be postponed until October.
That race aside, no driver remembers anything but racing in Daytona over the long Independence Day weekend. Many have lamented the loss of the event this week because not only does Daytona in the summer mark the midpoint of the NASCAR season, but drivers have used the beach and the birthplace of American stock car racing as an annual holiday getaway that culminates in an intense 400-mile race.
But Daytona next year will be the final event for a driver to snag a slot in the playoff field, which means the stakes will be higher and, at nearly six weeks later, perhaps protected from the unpredictable Florida weather.
"I think traditions are important and as a sport we stay true to a lot of traditions, but I also think if you don't change tradition, you'll always be where you're at,'' Logano said. "When I think about where this race is going to be placed next year, the final race before the playoffs, here we go. There's a good chance the fastest car and the best teams usually win, but there's also a good chance that they all crash and someone that doesn't typically win wins this race."
"I think that piece of it, even though it's not on the Fourth of July and we're all so used to it being on this weekend, this race being here, but I think where it's going to be placed is just going to add drama and I don't see where that's a bad thing in sports at all.''