Worth the wait: How Justin Haley tried to keep cool during delay

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The waiting was the hardest part for Justin Haley, who stood on pit road with his umbrella blown inside-out doing a rarely seen activity: Cheering on worsening weather.

“I can’t even see the cars. There’s fog. … Is that a spiral over there?” Haley said as he watched the shifting cloud formations. “It’s a tornado. There’s a waterspout on Lake Lloyd!”

Such creative license with the meteorological conditions ultimately wasn’t needed. The 20-year-old Haley became one of NASCAR’s youngest winners at Daytona International Speedway shortly after a drenching downpour halted the Coke Zero Sugar 400 with his Spire Motorsports No. 77 Chevrolet out front.

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A bold pit-road gambit to stay out put Haley & Co. in that position. All that was left was an agonizing wait — one that came some 22 hours after the race’s scheduled start time — to realize a lifelong dream in just his third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Though his demeanor gave off the appearance of a cool, collected handling of the delay, inside, Haley was anything but. He and the other drivers had loaded back into their cars anticipating the race to resume with 33 laps remaining, but just as quickly, they went back to scrambling for shelter as the weather threw one last curve into the weekend.

Haley did his best to roll with the plot twists. The Xfinity Series regular was composed for the cameras, though he admitted that his stomach was doing loops. His hands trembled as though frostbitten.

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“I can’t do much about it,” Haley said. “There’s just a lot of stuff going on. I’m just a dirt racer from Indiana, so there’s a lot of stuff going on.”

His mother, Melissa Dennis, faced similar bundled-up nerves, but found a constructive distraction.

“I went to the (motor)coach and started cleaning because the more I thought about it, the more the rain stopped,” Dennis said. “So I just separated myself from what was going on outside the coach and busied myself. My crew — my brothers and my husband — just kind of take on the worrying. Just every lightning strike, there was another update and then every rain drop, are they getting bigger? We just watched and prayed, and thankfully I thought the power of prayer brought us here.”

Just how long a wait was it for her? “It’s clean. It’s spotless,” Dennis said. “The dog went for a walk.”

Haley still had his doubts as he waited out the rain in the driver meeting room, even though the signs were starting to appear. Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile and other dignitaries arrived in the moments before the race was deemed official, and the alternate Victory Lane was quickly assembled.

At 5:30 p.m. ET, the wait was finally over.

“I don’t know how long the rain delay was,” said No. 77 crew chief Peter Sospenzo. “Had to be like, what, two hours? Yeah, felt like 20 days.”

Two hours, two days or 20 days, it was worth waiting for.

“It was up and down because we were back in the car and ready to fire them back up and then the rain came,” Haley said. “And the rest is history.”