NASCAR races at Daytona International Speedway are often unpredictable, since roughly 40 cars race in a giant, turbulent pack that could go tumbling down the track like a Jenga tower at any time. But Sunday’s race was unpredictable in a different way, given that a wreck didn’t decide everyone’s fate—lightning did.
Well, alright, there was a wreck too. But the weather ultimately did the race in, ending it more than 30 laps early and giving the Cup Series a shock winner even in terms of a crapshoot track that regularly produces upsets: Justin Haley, a 20-year-old driver in his third-career Cup Series start, racing for a new team that, according to Racing Reference, hadn’t finished in the top 20 before then.
It was all thanks to an untimely lightning strike right after the field got shuffled around—the kind of luck you hope for, but never have, when playing the lottery.
The 400-mile Daytona race Haley eventually won had already been postponed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon due to weather, and storms were still in the area then. Given NASCAR’s rule that races can be called official after the second stage, every lap past then was a question of when or if it would be called for weather, and, in turn, a strategy play to be out front if or when it did.
What set NASCAR up for the lightning-decided victory was a massive wreck on lap 120 of 160. A move at the front of the field collected 18 cars, putting the race under slower-paced caution laps as weather moved in. Kurt Busch inherited the lead under caution, and his team decided to stay out of the pits unless NASCAR signaled that there was one lap to go before the green flag, in case that was it.
NASCAR signaled the one to go, sending Busch and a line of other cars down pit road in preparation to compete for the win once the race got restarted. The race never got restarted.
As soon as NASCAR signaled the one to go and the contenders pitted, a lightning strike hit within its radius to put the race under lightning hold. That turned into a permanent stop after lap 127 of a scheduled 160, and Haley won.
NASCAR tried to get the race going again, which would’ve made the finish less of a fluke—after all, as Yahoo Sports notes, Haley’s Spire Motorsports team is connected with the Spire Sports and Entertainment talent agency representing drivers and teams including Haley:
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.
Ah, well. Lightning doesn’t care what’s below when it strikes, and it certainly doesn’t care who wins some car race at Daytona. But it’s a good argument that, in most everyday circumstances, races should be only official when they’ve run their full distance.