By Dustin Albino

In Justin Haley’s first start at Darlington Raceway in the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing in 2019, Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, joked about his driver being multiple seconds off the pace. 

That makes his finish in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 that much sweeter. 

Haley’s weekend didn’t start off well, as he essentially had just one way to go once the green flag waved on Sunday, starting 29th. By the end of the opening stage, the No. 31 Chevrolet cracked the top 20. 

During the second stage, Haley dropped to 27th, needing the free pass to get back on the lead lap. And during the final 40 laps, the No. 31 car avoided chaos, which included a nine-car pileup on lap 262. 

On the final restart, Haley raced to fourth place, which is where he would stay until he passed William Byron, who had a flat tire after making contact with Joey Logano with two laps remaining. 

“I think we probably had a 20th-place car,” Haley said following the race. “I wasn‘t very happy with it yesterday when we unloaded. It was a trying day, and we kept working it, kept our heads in the game and never lost sight of it.”

Haley credited his No. 31 team, led by crew chief Trent Owens, for making the correct adjustments to move forward. 

The third-place finish is Haley’s best result since winning his first Cup race at Daytona, via a weather-impacted race. His “career-high finish” on Sunday was pretty cool.

“I drove to third place today, right?” Haley said. “The team worked hard and we made a good setup call. It‘s just a different feeling. That win is a win, but this was a day where you had to keep your head in the game and avoid adversity.”

Through the opening 11 races of the season, the No. 31 team had a pair of 11th-place finishes, with five additional top-20 finishes. The third-place effort is Kaulig’s third top-five finish in 34 starts, and the first for the team on an oval.

Across the board, with an organization that Rice noted is “the worst it’s ever been” in the Xfinity Series, Sunday’s finish was needed.

“You can‘t take momentum away from people,” Rice stated. “Justin Haley has been doing great. We do a meeting every week, him and I, and he‘s exceeding expectations. I think we should finish 15th, and last week he ran well, this week he ran well. We didn‘t have a good car all weekend and they did well.

“It‘s a pretty big deal. It gives me cold chills to see him do well and smile. That’s awesome.”

With the No. 31 team’s first top-10 finish of the season, Haley has moved to 20th in the championship standings, unofficially 44 points below the playoff cutline. 

Haley is hoping to build on his third-place finish as the series heads to Kansas, a track he’s never finished worse than seventh at in four Xfinity Series starts.

Haley said, “We‘ve been clicking off top 15s, right around that area, but to show that we can do it here and showcase my talent is something I‘m super thankful for.”

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