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The Coke Zero Sugar 400′s no-so-sweet finish

NASCAR’s rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 has a surprise first-time winner, Justin Haley
Justin Haley, center, waits on pit road in the rain with crew members after the NASCAR Cup Series auto race was stopped because of weather at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Haley was declared the winner a short time later. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Published Jul. 8

DAYTONA BEACH – We bade farewell to the July race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

It was a long goodbye.

That sound you heard was the winner, praying.

“Yes, I did pray for rain,” Justin Who? said.

There was “weather in the area,” those four dreaded words that always go with the Coke Zero Sugar 400. This “weather” was a dark, lightning-spitting death cloud that appeared over the high banks with 33 laps remaining, like the clouds that opened up Saturday night to force this race to Sunday.

Sunday, too, eventually produced rain to finish this off after 317 miles. And in keeping with righteous, funky Daytona history — 100 percent humidity, 100 percent improbability — the declared winner, holder of the winning lottery ticket, was 20-year-old Justin Haley, making only his third start in the Monster Energy Cup series, NASCAR’s top division.

Haley officially won after a 2-hour, 12-minute delay on the heels of a chain-reaction crash that took out 17 cars roughly 125 laps into the 160-lap race. Then Kurt Busch, running first, tried to pit, thinking there was one lap to go before a restart.

But a lightning strike within eight miles of the high banks brought out a red flag to park and covered cars with Haley in first and Busch in 10th. Everyone felt sorry for Busch until they remembered: it’s Kurt Busch.

So, that was how the 61st and final Daytona July race went down, as only things can go down at Daytona. They prepared for a restart, but there was another lightning strike, so we went back on the 30-minute lightning clock. Feel free to sing along, soccer parents.

Finally, the rain. And Justin Haley of Winamac, Ind., was race champion. He watched the weather through his windshield before a restart try and said another little prayer. He didn’t expect to win if the green flag waved again.

“Probably not,” Haley said. “We would have gotten eaten up on a restart. … Like I said, we were just trying to keep the fenders on it. We just wanted to finish. We didn’t expect to win.”

“Anything is possible when you come here in general,” said Tampa’s Aric Almirola, who finished seventh Sunday but who won his first Cup race here in 2014 in another rain-shortened 400. “Racing is a crazy sport and you never know what to expect.”

This is not to say it won’t lightning or rain or be crazy when the July Daytona race moves to August next season, becoming the last race before the playoffs. That will be insane, too, probably too insane to be a playoff race or the season finale. Daytona is a racing cathedral, but there are too many sinners and too much mayhem for it to hold up as a true championship test.

“I personally don’t want the season finale to be a (restrictor) plate race,” said seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished third Sunday, then met with media while clutching an umbrella. “There are just too many variables. Then rain. Everybody says August is going to be better. I’m not sure that’s the case. We’re all about ready to go dry out and not worry about staying here anymore.”

Justin Haley poses for photos with his trophy after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Why didn’t NASCAR and NBC get this entire race in? Why didn’t they start this race in the morning Sunday, like in the old Firecracker days?

What, they were worried about butting up against the U.S. women, who were winning the World Cup in France? I’m sure there wasn’t a ton of crossover viewers.

Also, if this is the most patriotic sport in America, then why couldn’t I find the Women’s World Cup final on any video screens in the Daytona fan zone? Our fighting daughters laid it on the line and came away with a win for back-to-back championships. Meanwhile, people craned their necks for a peek at Denny Hamlin’s oil pan. To each his own. Free country.

Now, back to the lightning clock ….

We learned Sunday, again, about the pitfalls of trying to do anything dicey while going 190 mph on a superspeedway. We saw it during practice for the 400, as William Byron tried to block Brad Keselowski, who kept his foot on the gas and took Byron out, no apologies. In practice!

It happened again Sunday, when race leader Austin Dillon tried a block to stop Clint Bowyer from overtaking him in Turn 1. Dillon tried to slip in front of Bowyer, Bowyer kept going, Byron slid out and they collected nearly everyone else.

“It’s carnage down here,” one trackside announcer said.

Haley was running 27th at the time of the wreck.

“I was far enough back to avoid it, but close enough to it to still be in the draft,” he said.

MORE DAYTONA: Farewell to Daytona's July rockets red glare

And that’s how the kid won his first race in the Cup series. The new Trevor Bayne? Remember, Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 when he was just 20. Last July, Haley nearly won an Xfinitiy Series race here, but it was wiped out by his illegal move below the double-yellow line.

You can’t blame a guy for trying.

Or praying.

“Then the rain came and the rest is history,” Haley said.

Here’s to the impossible. Here’s to one last July race at Daytona. Here’s to lottery winner Justin Haley.

Almirola said, “I’m sure he showed up here without high expectations, just get in there and finish, not make any mistakes, don’t get caught up in a big wreck. Next thing you know, he finds himself leading when the rain and lightning come.”

Best of all, it didn’t go to penalty kicks.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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