By Dustin Albino

CHICAGO — Kaulig Racing isn’t one of the larger Chevrolet NASCAR teams, thus its drivers don’t get a plethora of time on the manufacturer’s simulator. Justin Haley had a total of 20 minutes on the simulator to prepare for the Chicago Street Race, coming this past Thursday evening at 9 p.m.

Early in the weekend, Haley’s inexperience on the course showed. He bounced his No. 31 Chevrolet off the wall in practice and didn’t get to make a qualifying lap. Haley’s Saturday evening consisted of rewrapping his blue Benesch Law car, as he assisted his Kaulig Racing team with the repairs. 

“I wrapped like half the car myself,” Haley said after the race. “I feel like that was pretty cool.”

When the race began, Haley had one way to go: forward. By the end of the opening stage, the No. 31 car was up to 25th position. 

The gamechanger for Haley came when the No. 31 car was one of 11 cars that pitted during the lap 40 caution when Denny Hamlin bumped into Alex Bowman in Turn 8. Moments later, at the end of the second stage, NASCAR announced it would cut the race by 25 laps, changing the strategy of the frontrunners, such as Christopher Bell, who swept the first two stages. 

Haley inherited the lead, as he had enough fuel to get to the end on fuel, after finishing the second stage in 23rd and went on to lead the next 23 laps, holding off drivers such as Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. 

The biggest threat for Haley quickly became New Zealand‘s Shane van Gisbergen, who was on much fresher tires, being one of the cars to pit during the second stage. As the No. 91 Chevrolet put a move on Haley with eight laps remaining, the caution flew for Martin Truex Jr. being stuck in the tire barriers. 

On the restart, Haley traded the lead back and forth with van Gisbergen with the No. 31 car driving deep into a tight Turn 4, and van Gisbergen crossed him over to get the lead back. 

“It wasn’t much of a battle,” Haley said of the battle. “You’re just trying to do everything you can. I was really struggling into Turn 4. That’s where I wrecked yesterday, and our car was just so rough in the braking zone and I was really struggling there, trying to adjust my brake bias to be better there, and I just couldn’t.

“His car was just smoother through there and could out-brake me.”

The final caution flew for a collision between Bubba Wallace and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Haley got one more chance at the win, but came up 1.2 seconds short of the victory. 

“I don’t feel like he pulled away from me,” Haley noted. “I felt like I held my own there on the green-white-checkered especially, but was that just him only needing that five-car-length gap, knowing that it was his race to lose.”

The runner-up finish is Haley’s first top-five finish since last fall at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Haley is now tied with Austin Cindric for 21st in the championship standings, 45 points below the cutline, currently held by Ty Gibbs. 

Cutting into the points deficit makes this finish that much sweeter. 

“I felt like where we’re at right now as an organization, we’re just trying to get better,” Haley said. “This is my and the team’s second full-time season, and unfortunately I haven’t been in a position like that legitimately to try to hold off championship-caliber drivers. I’ve just never found myself in that position early in my career.

“I don’t feel like it was a complete loss. We still finished second.”

The series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend, where Haley finished seventh last summer. All four of his Xfinity Series victories have come on superspeedways, which is how Atlanta races.

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