By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Haley returns to Daytona International Speedway with a chip on his shoulder and after topping the speed chart at 189.581 mph (47.473 seconds) during final practice before Saturday’s NASCAR Racing Experience 300, he’s eyeing for redemption.
“Daytona has always been good to me. I finished second here in Trucks last year and I’ve been good on superspeedways my whole career,” Haley told Motorsports Tribune. “We had fast speed and we were up there in final practice and made some mock runs and we were very competitive. I’d love to get redemption, it’ll be like the ultimate comeback story, so will see how the race pans out.
“We’ve got to be conservative because this is the first race of the season and want to get max points. I don’t want to dig myself into a hole early in the season, so we’re going to be cautiously aggressive and see how we come out.”
The reason behind Haley’s quest for redemption goes back to his last appearance in Daytona. It was last July’s Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 where he went from celebrating a win to the tail end of the lead lap after violating the double yellow line rule when he passed both Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler for the race win. The penalty gave Larson the victory at the “World Center of Racing.”
While the flashbacks of that sour moment linger on Haley’s mind, his thoughts on the ordeal have slightly changed, owning up to the mistake that cost him to win in only his second NASCAR Xfinity Series start, as he’s ready to move on with a new opportunity at Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 LeafFilter Chevrolet Camaro.
“I still feel the same way about my race,” said Haley. “I made the race winning move and just missed it a little bit. It’s all on me and my fault, but it’s just how you look at it and we got to move on and focus on this year. I didn’t even have a full Xfinity ride, it was just an opportunity to go over there in a part-time deal.
“Now that I got a full ride, I got a few shots at it to redeem myself. It’s a new group of guys I’ve worked with. New crew chief, new team, and new owner – lots of new for me and I’m just trying to get settled in.”
Daytona was far from the only highlight Haley was known for in the sport as he put on a strong Gander Outdoors Truck Series campaign, where luck and competitive GMS Racing trucks launched him to stardom, scoring three wins at three different race tracks: Gateway, Canadian Tire, and Texas.
Those pivotal wins got the Winamac, Indiana native into the Championship 4, where he ended up third in the final standings.
Haley said that in those race wins, he felt that his truck was among the best in the field except Gateway where the final restart propelled him to pass Noah Gragson and led the final seven laps en route to his first career victory.
“A lot of those races we were the best. I would probably say Gateway we won flat out on a restart because that was the worst handling truck, we had out of the three. I think looking back at last season, we could’ve had a few more wins. The three that we got were cool and we were fortunate in the right position, but I think if you weren’t put into that position to begin with, you won’t be able to win.”
On and off the track, Haley has leaned on 2016 Truck Series champion Johnny Sauter, and stated that he’s helped him build great levels of confidence and become the driver he is on the NASCAR tour, all thanks to Sauter’s knowledge on making the most out of a truck.
“He can make a 10th place truck into a winning truck. Obviously, they build race winning trucks, but some weeks you just miss it and you have to recover,” said Haley. “Johnny was very good with his experience, skills, working the draft, restarts and pit road, and making minor mistakes.
“Over my time with him, I just learned mechanically how to get the most grip out of the car by making it fast. He just built me a lot, confidence wise and as teammates we’ve pushed each other like everyone else.”