The Justin Haley Crash at Pocono Could Be Emblematic Of His Risky Career Decision
Justin Haley was in the midst of another pedestrian performance in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway on Sunday when he crashed hard into the Turn 2 wall with seven laps to go in an incident that could be an apt metaphor for his recent career decision.
The Justin Haley crash was the latest disappointment in his second Cup Series season with Kaulig Racing
Justin Haley has had a brutal third full-time Cup Series season, his second in the No. 31 car for Kaulig Racing. He entered Sunday’s race 21st in the points standings with only one top-five finish, which came at the Chicago Street Race on July 2 when he cycled to the lead through a dubious pit cycle when NASCAR suddenly announced the race would end 25 laps shy of the scheduled distance because of impending darkness.
Outside of the Chicago race, he has not led a lap through the first 21 points-paying races in a season initially filled with potential for the 24-year-old driver from Indiana.
Haley produced a career-high three top-five finishes and finished 22nd in the points standings a year ago in his first season with Kaulig. He appeared poised to improve upon those results for an organization that had a relatively strong first full-time season in the series.
Kaulig has entered at least one full-time team in the second-tier Xfinity Series since 2016. It has grown that program from a single-car operation that needed three years to score its first top-five finish to an organization that has placed a driver inside the top five in the points standings each of the last three seasons.
While Haley’s teammate, A.J. Allmendinger, has charged up to 17th and sits just 17 points shy of the 16th and final playoff spot with five races left in the regular season, Haley has failed to crack the top 20 in the points standings this season.
He crashed and finished 32nd in the season-opening Daytona 500, and he finished outside the top 20 in four early races, which left him 25th in the standings, needing to climb out of a substantial hole to reach the playoffs without a regular-season victory.
Still, Haley has been with Kaulig in either the Xfinity or Cup series since 2019 and seemed to have the potential to be the long-term flagship driver for the organization as it establishes itself at the sport’s top level. He scored his only career Cup Series win with Spire Motorsports in the July 2019 race at Daytona International Speedway but also finished third in the Xfinity Series standings for Kaulig in 2020.
Justin Haley likely made the most surprising decision of the 2023 Silly Season
Instead, Justin Haley and Rick Ware Racing announced that Haley would move to the Ford-backed organization in 2024.
No matter how much Kaulig Racing has struggled at times in 2023, it is still a step above RWR, which has been one of the worst-performing organizations in the series since 2017.
RWR cars have made 560 starts in the Cup Series and have a combined eight top-10 finishes with 21 laps led. The organization has also never had a driver finish better than 32nd in the points standings.
“I get on the surface it doesn’t look like the best move, but come three, five years with the charter agreement, TV agreement, and the political uncertainty of the election being next year, there’s a lot more to it from the sport side of it, and I have to protect myself,” Haley said, per Jayski, after the announcement of his move.
Haley might feel as if he protected himself financially, given possible struggles for Kaulig to find a full sponsorship package for next season. But if he can come even close to replicating what has been an underwhelming and disappointing 2023 campaign, that would be one of the bigger surprises of the 2024 season.
The No. 15 car currently sits 32nd in the owners’ standings, and the No. 51 car is 35th. RWR intended to use a variety of drivers in the No. 15 car this season, but it has had to use that approach for both teams because NASCAR indefinitely suspended team owner Rick Ware’s son and the driver of the No. 51 car, Cody Ware, after his April 10 arrest on a felony charge of assault by strangulation and a misdemeanor charge of assault.
The two RWR cars have failed to finish a combined six times this season and have finished on the lead lap just 15 times in a combined 42 starts. RWR formed a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing after the 2022 season, but that has done little to help the organization’s performance this season.
Chances are slim that Haley will be able to make a substantial difference in those cars next year.