Justin Haley managed his race pace and ran down hometown driver Kyle Benjamin with seven laps to go to claim his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory at Greenville-Pickens Speedway Saturday night.
It completed a remarkable turnaround for Haley, who went by the name “J.J.” until the start of the year. Early in his NASCAR K&N career, Haley was inconsistent and by his own admission sometimes overaggressive. But after a blown tire that cost him a surefire Phoenix finale victory and a full winter to think over being the only winless HScott driver in 2015, Haley said coming to the track with a new attitude and a year under his belt has helped him.
“I just came into this year with a more positive attitude and so did the team”, Haley told the media shortly after the race. “We’re playing it a lot smarter as a result. It helps the confidence a lot. We’ve had some big hits in confidence and had good runs that got ended before, but the crew is in real good spirits now.”
Benjamin set fast time in qualifying with a 20.705 second lap. Haley was pleased to qualify second after his team struggled in qualifying trim in practice. They would be the only real factors up front all evening with Benjamin often stretching the gap before losing his lead in traffic.
At the lap 55 mark, Haley grabbed the lead for the first time in the evening with a bold three wide pass after Benjamin had to back out to avoid the lapped car of John Holleman. Benjamin seemed to reclaim the lead at will a few laps later and was on cruise control up to and after the halfway break.
But Haley kept Benjamin honest enough in the closing laps and by ten laps to go Haley’s car finally had noticeably more traction on corner exit and closed the gap. He simply made a good run in the middle of the corner on lap 143, took the lead, and sailed to victory.
Benjamin chose to remain upbeat despite a narrow loss just five miles down the road from where he grew up.
“I had a lot of fun racing tonight. I’m honestly a little disappointed because I thought we had a real shot at it for a while, but finished for second isn’t bad either,” Benjamin told Speed51.com after the race. “We had a good short and long run car. But so did he and we just came up short at the very end. But maybe I fought just a little too hard to keep control of the race. We had a little rain on the windshield and needed to stay up front. I would try to watch the mirror and keep his pace, just leave him two carlengths back. We probably both just wound up running too hard for those last laps.”
“We played it safe and used the first 75 laps as a judge for the last 75”, Haley added. “I felt like we had a better car than the 40 [Benjamin] all day and it showed. For the second run, we were pretty much all out. We got a pretty good gap back to third so it didn’t really matter; we could just race each other. We just went the pace of the race and were there at the end.”
Ronnie Bassett was 3rd. Spencer Davis finished 4th and will lead the points standings heading into the series’ next race, April 16th at Bristol Motor Speedway. Dillon Bassett rounded out the top-five.
1 5 Justin Haley
2 40 Kyle Benjamin
3 4 Ronnie Bassett Jr.
4 41 Spencer Davis *
5 44 Dillon Bassett
6 66 Reid Wilson *
7 55 Noah Gragson
8 38 Tyler Dippel *
9 3 Kaz Grala
10 13 Hunter Baize *
11 2 Collin Cabre
12 42 Jairo Avila, Jr.
13 02 Sarah Cornett-Ching*
14 1 Austin Theriault
15 12 Harrison Burton *
16 30 Dominique Van Wieringen *
17 49 John Holleman IV *
18 4 Ali Kern *
19 6 Ruben Garcia Jr. *
20 14 Trey Hutchens
21 09 Christian Celaya
— Story and Photos by Tim Quievryn // 51’s Third Turn // @thethirdturn