At this point last year, Justin Haley had already competed in 24 NASCAR races — 12 in the Xfinity Series and 12 in the Cup Series. He was running for points in the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing but also a near-full schedule in the Cup Series with Spire Motorsports. By season‘s end, Haley had tallied 63 total races.
This year, Haley is solely focused on the Cup Series, where he races for Kaulig Racing in the No. 31 Chevrolet as they both make their full-time debut at the sport’s top level.
“I keep telling people that this is like an offseason for me because last year, I did 60-something NASCAR races between the two series,” Haley told NASCAR.com. “I’m like, ‘Man, this is easy. It‘s just one series.‘ ”
“No, I mean, it’s definitely not easy,” Haley said. “It’s been tough and it’s challenging and it humbles you. We had a string of good races. We finished third at Darlington (Raceway), and then the next week, our tire falls off, we catch on fire three times and we burn a battery system out of it. It’s just so hard to be consistent.”
With 14 races down, that third-place Darlington showing highlights Haley‘s 2022 season so far. It‘s his only top-five and top-10 finish. He does have six top 15s and a recent string of four in a row that Darlington capped off.
In the last two races since Darlington, though, Haley registered a pair of DNFs — 35th (electrical) at Kansas Speedway and 27th (engine) at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Haley, 23, is riding a 19.1 average finish as a result.
“There‘s opportunity races for us,” Haley said. “We have to go out and find those opportunity races, and then slowly but surely make our race team better over the course of the years. It‘s not like an overnight thing.”
Sunday‘s race may provide such an opportunity. The Cup Series heads to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Illinois — right outside St. Louis — for the first time ever. And Haley is one of nine drivers in the 36-driver field who has won at the 1.25-mile track that has also hosted the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series.
Haley won the 2018 Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway, leading the final seven laps and taking the checkered flag by 0.753 seconds. He was fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2 after starting fourth.
“I would love to say I feel more confident, but the Cup Series is like… they’re so good,” Haley said. “Each and every week, every single driver is like lights-out. So, it’s gonna be tough to be good this weekend. … I know where Victory Lane is, but I don‘t think that gives me an advantage. It probably will give me a disadvantage, knowing my luck.”
A for-sure disadvantage: Haley‘s No. 31 crew will be without its crew chief, Trent Owens, as he continues to serve a four-race suspension NASCAR delivered after Kansas, where the Chevy lost a wheel during competition. Rear-tire changer Jonpatrick Kealey and jackman Marshall McFadden were also penalized the same. Gateway will be their third missed race.
This is the second time Owens has been suspended. After this probational period ends, that‘ll be eight races Haley was required to perform without his crew chief — and the season isn‘t even halfway over. Haley chalks up consistency issues to that rather important detail, along with the fact this is Kaulig Racing‘s first real attempt at a Cup Series championship.
“It would probably have been easier to step into an already established organization, right? But I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Haley said. “Because the opportunity Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice and LeafFilter are giving me to race their car — we’re in it together. And Matt and Chris and LeafFilter, they don’t have unreal expectations. We’re extremely realistic on where we think we should be. We don’t think we’re gonna go out there every weekend and win and just blow the world on fire. But it‘s a possibility. …
“Again, I ran third at Darlington. I’m just gonna keep saying that till people respect it.”