The call came from the Tower. The race ends on Lap 75.
When Alex Bowman’s engine expired on Lap 45, NASCAR did the math and realized with the pace of the race and the remaining daylight, the Grant Park 220 wasn’t going the advertised 100 laps.
Eleven cars stayed out under the caution, and Justin Haley inherited the lead.
Now, he’s in the unfamiliar territory of holding off winners and champions of NASCAR in the waning laps.
“Obviously, I have in the Truck and XFINITY Series,” he said, “but the level of talent — I had Chase Elliott behind me and Kyle Larson and Shane (van Gisbergen) and Austin Dillon for a little bit, all champions and multi-race winners.”
In the midst of contract talks and a rotten weekend, his drive to a runner-up finish gave him a “big confidence boost.”
And it didn’t come easy.
For the final 26 laps, he thwarted charges from Dillon and Elliott.
The former clipped the wall entering Turn 12 and plowed into the tire barrier with 14 laps to go.
The latter lost second to Gisbergen in Turn 2 with eight to go.
As Haley sped along South Shore Line Drive, the reigning Supercars champion closed the gap from half a second to his bumper.
They turned onto East Balbo Drive and crossed the bridge over the Metra Electric District. Gisbergen set him up for an overtake, but Martin Truex Jr. plowed into the Turn 1 tire barrier and brought out a caution.
Similar to his maiden Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway, four years earlier, Haley, on older tires, sat in the catbird seat of a race that could end at a moment’s notice. All he needed to do was hold off Gisbergen, a street racing veteran, and his fresher tires.
“It wasn’t much of a battle,” he said. “You’re just trying to do everything you can.”
Gisbergen overtook him into Turn 2.
Haley drag-raced him down Shore Line Drive and retook the lead in Turn 3, but his struggles with Turn 4 caught up to him with five to go.
“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,” he said.
Gisbergen out-braked him into Turn 4, and that was game over. Even with a second chance in overtime, Gisbergen left Haley in his wake and scored his maiden victory in his first start.
“Yeah, Shane was just better,” he said. “He had 16 or something lap better tires. Just a world-class racer. He was very calculated, very precise, and very smooth. He wasn’t overdriving it. He was very calculated.
“For someone to come in and race like that was just incredible. Very clean, as well. Our race for the lead was clean, and he gave a lot of room and very respectful.”
For Haley, however, he didn’t feel it was “a complete loss.” Given his and Kaulig Racing’s season, to this point, this was a much needed run for a team “just trying to get better.”
“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,” he said. “I’ve just never found myself in that position early in my career.”
Mathematically, Haley could still point his way into the playoffs. His performance over the season, however, means his best chance is to win at either Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, or Daytona in August.