Why Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports' win at Daytona is a black eye for NASCAR

The final July Cup Series race at Daytona was an absolute disaster for NASCAR.

It was originally scheduled for Saturday night. But it rained. So NASCAR moved the race to Sunday.

That didn’t work out much better. The 160-lap race ended after 127 laps. Justin Haley was declared the winner. And boy, was that a nice encapsulation of NASCAR in 2019.

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Should Kurt Busch have been the winner?

Teams knew that rain could hit Daytona International Speedway at almost any moment during the final 60 laps on Sunday. The racing was intense. And it explains why Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer were racing so aggressively for the lead on lap 119 when their moves at the front of the field caused a 17-car crash.

Whoops. (via NBC)
Whoops. (via NBC)

Kurt Busch inherited the lead after the crash, which happened as storms were around Daytona. After all, it’s July in Florida. Teams knew rain could bubble up at any moment.

Busch led throughout the long caution after the massive crash and ended up pitting when NASCAR told teams that the race would go back green in one lap. Busch led other drivers down pit road with 34 laps to go in the scheduled race distance with the understanding that NASCAR was going to restart the race in a lap.

The race never got restarted. Right after Busch and others pitted to get to the end of the 400-mile race, NASCAR said lightning from a nearby storm had struck within eight miles of Daytona. So the race had to be red-flagged and stopped for at least 30 minutes.

Haley, driving for Spire Motorsports, didn’t pit. The team wasn’t racing for the win. It didn’t need to pit. So that decision wound up putting it in the lead alongside fellow backmarker team Rick Ware Racing with J.J. Yeley in the No. 52 car.

NASCAR’s notification that the race would be going green should have been a tacit agreement with teams that it was restarting the race. After all, the thunderstorms around Daytona weren’t exactly a surprise. Lightning was very close to the eight-mile radius before Busch’s pit stop.

But instead of red-flagging the race after the 17-car pileup, NASCAR made the decision to keep ticking laps off. And told teams that it was going green. Then it didn’t.

Had Busch and others pitted without the knowledge that NASCAR was restarting the race in a lap, then Haley’s win makes a bit more sense. But when NASCAR told teams that it was going green, well, it should have gone green. Or stopped scoring the race ahead of when Busch and others pitted.

If NASCAR was confident that the race would get restarted it should have been confident enough to reset the running order at the start of the red flag to the pre-pit stop order. Busch and others only made their pit stops because NASCAR told them that the race was going to restart in a lap. Had NASCAR not issued that directive, they would have undoubtedly remained on the track.

And Busch would have ultimately been declared the race winner. If you’re going to commit to something, you should actually do it. Or, at the very least, have a good backup plan. Especially when you started a race just ahead of a thunderstorm a week ago and ran 11 laps before the storm hit the track.

Spire Motorsports wouldn’t exist in any other sports series

The existence of Spire Motorsports is attributable to the insane business environment that is NASCAR.

Spire’s team only exists because Furniture Row Racing — the team that won the 2017 Cup title with Martin Truex Jr. — shut down after the 2018 season. Spire got the charter that Furniture Row had and saw a business opportunity to make some cash.

“We just wanted to be in control of our own destiny, and we've put a lot of money in a lot of people's pockets in this garage, and there's a lot of people out there that this we're doing this as a cash grab the way the charter system works, and quite frankly that's not true,” Spire’s T.J. Puchyr said.

“... So this isn't new to us. We've been doing this a long time, and we're trying to build something, but the way that this shook out in November of last year, 5‑Hour was a client of ours, Furniture Row was a client of ours, so this is bittersweet. Love Barney Visser, love the Visser family. Joe Garone is sitting somewhere. I hope he's on his boat enjoying this, but it's hard. Those were ‑‑ that's our family, you know?

So yeah, this means a lot. It's a big f‑‑‑ing deal. But this is — we did it early, and look, it's not lost on me that luck was on our side today.”

You can’t blame them for that maneuver. You’d go get a portion of the millions NASCAR awards teams if you could too. And it just so happened that Furniture Row’s charter was worth more than a lot of other charters because the team was really good from 2016-2018 since prize money is based on past performance. So Spire would get more from it than buying a charter from a crappy team over that three-year span.

But you can sure blame NASCAR for letting the maneuver happen. Spire is an offshoot of Spire Sports and Entertainment, a talent agency that represents drivers and teams. It counts Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, James Hinchcliffe and others as its clients. In no other sport or series would a talent agency be allowed to also operate as a team owner. Hell, Spire is a representative of Haley, meaning he was driving for a team that was owned by his agent. If Haley didn’t have Spire as his agent he wouldn’t have been in that car. And he wouldn’t have won Sunday’s race.

In no other sport or series would a player/participant agency be allowed to also operate as a team owner. Jay Z had to sell his stake in the Brooklyn Nets to keep Roc Nation as an active NBA agency. Yet Spire’s team ownership in NASCAR raised few, if any, eyebrows.

That’s probably because NASCAR is a niche sport.

But NASCAR’s existence as a niche sport with way too many conflicts of interests shouldn’t make Spire immune from criticism. People would rightfully go crazy if Scott Boras owned a Major League Baseball team or Creative Artists Agency owned an NFL team. Yet in NASCAR, few people raised their eyebrows at Spire’s (smart) gaming of the broken NASCAR system.

What’s a win worth?

This one is pretty simple. Should a driver and team get a win because multiple teams followed false NASCAR directives?

Sure, outsmarting the competition when radar shows rain approaching is a smart way to gain some positions. But the No. 77 team wasn’t racing for a win. It — literally — caught lightning in a bottle.

Calling Haley’s win an upset is a disservice to upsets. There was no overachievement done by his team. It was slow and off the pace all day. Staying on the lead lap at the time of a massive crash isn’t an achievement.

NASCAR clearly wanted to get the race restarted when it waited for a long time after the first lightning delay to call the race. And it probably could have waited longer. Given the afternoon nature of thunderstorms in Daytona, there was clearly a window for the series to get the race restarted in the evening.

NASCAR didn’t want to wait that long. It should have. No one should get a win by going from 27th to 1st via luck and circumstance without actually leading a lap unless NASCAR is unaware of its already tenuous credibility.

Spire isn’t making the top 30

This is going to be the first win in NASCAR’s win-and-in playoff era where the winning team doesn’t make the playoffs.

Haley declared ahead of the season for Xfinity Series points because he’s running the whole season for Kaulig Racing. But the owner’s points playoffs exists independent of the driver’s playoffs. And Spire isn’t close to being playoff eligible.

Spire’s team is operated out of the Premium Motorsports shop. Premium is a NASCAR backmarker. Spire’s No. 77 car had an average finish of 32.5 entering Sunday’s race. The team isn’t trying to win. It’s trying to make money.

And who can blame them? Making money is hard to do in NASCAR these days. But there’s a difference between running a competitive team and running a team for profit. And Spire is definitely doing the latter.

You need to be in the top 30 in points with a win to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs. And Spire isn’t close to that threshold.

The No. 77 car is 86 points out of 30th in the owners standings with just eight races to go in the regular season. It could get to the playoffs — and more money for doing so — if Spire spent some money for better equipment and ditched Premium over the next eight races to bridge the gap. But it’s not spending that money.

And that’s fine. Existing as a moneymaking enterprise at the back of the NASCAR Cup Series garage is a fine endeavor. But pretending you’re trying to be competitive when you’re farming out your equipment to Jay Robinson’s Premium Motorsports is laughable. Premium is a backmarker team and nothing more.

NASCAR is a backmarker too. At least among major sports. The race was started at 1 p.m. ET, conveniently two hours after the start of the Women’s World Cup Final. Had NASCAR not hemorrhaged viewers for the last few years, it might have been in a stronger position for the series and NBC to feel good about starting the race at 11 a.m. ET to ensure it ran to the full distance.

But the series is struggling. So starting the race after the United States Women’s National Team — assuming that was a start time factor — wasn’t a terrible decision.

It just didn’t work out optimally like many things in NASCAR over the last few seasons.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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