NASCAR StatWatch — Justin Haley pulls off improbable win at Daytona

I hope that last weekend was everything you’ve come to love from Daytona weekend. Rain and lightning delays, watermelon farmers and a winner who was probably most people’s 39th or 40th pick to win.

Hopefully some (not all — I can do without the weather delays) of the Daytona institutions follow this race to its new date in August, starting in 2020. But the unpredictability does mean a great deal to NASCAR statistical bloggers like myself.

Victories by Justin Haley in Sunday’s Cup series race and Ross Chastain in Friday’s Xfinity Series race were both highly unpredictable, feel-good stories. Sure, it would’ve been fun to have seen Sunday’s Cup race end under a green flag, and maybe on Saturday, the day it was originally scheduled to be run.

But we can’t ask for too much. After all, we did get a Truck Series driver winning the Xfinity race and an Xfinity Series driver winning the Cup race. No playoff berths stolen, but a spot for each in the record book.

Here are some of my favorite notes from the weekend that was.

A Hail(y) Mary winner

To say Haley was an unexpected winner is an exaggeration of unrestricted proportions. But let’s count the ways.

Haley was making his third career start in the series, the 20th winner in series history who picked up his first win in three or fewer career starts. Eight of those came in the first two Cup series seasons, and only four have come since 1965. Kevin Harvick and Haley both did so in their third starts; Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne both one-upped them by winning in their second starts. The last driver to win in his first Cup start was Johnny Rutherford in 1963.

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Haley was also just 20 years, 70 days old at the time of his first victory. Only Joey Logano (19 years old) and Bayne (20 years, one day) were younger when they became Cup winners. The only other drivers to pick up a Cup win before turning 21 were Kyle Busch and Donald Thomas. Logano and Busch were future Cup series champions, while Bayne and Thomas have one career win apiece.

Before the final lap of Sunday’s race, Haley had never led a lap in the Cup series. The last lap of a race is an excellent choice for your first. The only other driver besides Haley to pull off that feat? Brad Keselowski, who also pulled off a mega-upset when he led Phoenix Racing to victory at Talladega in 2009 in one of the wildest finishes in series history. Count on this again in 2029?

Haley’s previous best career Cup finish was 32nd in his Cup debut at Talladega. That makes him the eighth driver in series history to pick up a win despite never having a top-30 finish in the series. Six of the previous seven were drivers who were making their first career starts in the series. The other was household name John Rostek, who won in his second career start at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in 1960. His only other start was a 39th-place finish in his Daytona 500 qualifier, when he wrecked out on the fifth lap. That was next to last in that race, beating only a name I needed to mention in this column, and I swear it isn’t made up at all: Johnny Dollar.

Something to In-Spire you

Backing Haley’s efforts was first-year Cup series team Spire Motorsports. Haley is the sixth different driver the team has used this season, and his win improved the team’s average finish to 30.8.

If you’re keeping track at home (I always am), that’s one more victory than Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing have this season.

The sport has been dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season, and by Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing going back previous years, as the sport has generally had a handful of organizations leading the way throughout its history.

By my count, 183 different organizations have picked up Cup series victories. Spire Motorsports is the first new team to join the fraternity since JTG Daugherty Racing nearly five years ago in August 2014 at Watkins Glen.

In fact, only four teams have been first-time winners going back to 2010: Spire, JTG Daugherty, Front Row Motorsports and Furniture Row Racing. To show how quickly an organization can grow from newcomer to champion, Sunday’s race was exactly 10 years and one month removed from the inaugural victory for Stewart-Haas Racing, by Tony Stewart at Pocono.

Feels like the first time … again

In this space, or one very similar to it, I wrote all about first-time winners for Alex Bowman‘s victory last week at Chicago. First-time winners are fairly rare, except at Daytona, where Haley was the 20th first-time winner. But back-to-back first-time winners are especially rare.

This was the first time there were first-time winners in consecutive races since 2007, when Casey Mears and Martin Truex Jr. got their maiden wins in back-to-back races. In the Modern Era (since 1972), it had only happened two other times, by Jerry Nadeau and Michael Waltrip in 2000-01, and Tony Stewart and Joe Nemechek in 1999.

If you thought that was rare, if the nearly impossible happens and we get a third straight first-time winner next weekend at Kentucky, it’ll be the first time that’s happened since 1950, the second season in Cup series history.

Those three first-timers were Johnny Mantz, Fonty Flock and Leon Sales.

The record for consecutive first-time winners was five, in the very first five races in Cup series history.

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