By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The first question for Justin Haley during the Championship 4 press conference for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was regarding the underdog label many have put on the 19-year-old driver, the youngest of the four championship contenders.
“It’s going to be the label even when I win it,” Haley said. “And it’s not underdog, it’s dark horse. Yeah, it’s dark horse, and we were the seventh seed going into the playoffs. No one even really had us going into the round of six. A lot of people didn’t even have us going to the playoffs, and we made it to the round of four to prove all the haters wrong. It’s been really fun.”
Haley punched his ticket to the Playoffs when he won the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race of his career, back in June at Gateway Motorsports Park. The Winamac, Indiana native has gone on to win two of the races in the Playoffs, but still isn’t seen as the favorite behind GMS Racing teammate Johnny Sauter, Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Noah Gragson and Hattori Racing’s Brett Moffitt.
Haley had no wins, three top-fives and 12 top-10s in his first full-time season of truck competition last year and has shown a vast improvement in 2018, racking up three three wins to go along with nine top-five and 17 top-10 results. More importantly, two of those wins and five of those top-fives have come in the last six races. An oil leak last weekend at Phoenix resulted in a 28th-place result, but prior to that, Haley hadn’t finished outside the top-ten since Iowa Speedway back in June.
Haley also made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut at Iowa Speedway in June and has competed in two more events this season behind the wheel of a GMS Racing Chevrolet.
“It’s a combination of a lot,” Haley said of the recent spike in performance. “I ‘d say probably those XFINITY starts, I go back on those. I think it helped me to go up there and run the faster cars and get the experience with the more developed drivers.”
“I attribute that a lot to it, but I think as a team we found a better package in our trucks, and what we were doing at the end of 2017 we’ve been doing a lot this year, and we found good speed, and me and my crew chief, we just bonded well at the beginning of this year, and it’s just grown ever since. I feel like we’ve just built as a total in the package we have and the setup we bring now and the amount of time and wind tunnel work that we do now is a lot more excessive than what we had been doing. It’s just a lot of contributions everywhere.”
While many might see this entire week leading up to and including Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be pressure-packed, it’s basically been business as usual for Haley.
“I’ve got no pressure. I wouldn’t say I don’t care how this weekend goes, but however the weekend goes, I’m going to be pretty okay with it because I know we’ve put ourselves in the opportunity to win a championship, and I think that’s — when I told my team at the beginning of the year, I said, if we work together and get the 24 truck into the Final Four, that’s really all we can ask for, the opportunity to go and compete for a championship.”
“I want to do it for everyone in GMS and my family, as well. It would just be pretty cool. We’ve had a pretty killer season, though. It would be a disappointment if we didn’t win the championship, but it wouldn’t be career ending.”