RIDGEWAY, Va. — Justin Haley was all smiles amid the raindrops that pelted Martinsville Speedway on Friday afternoon.
After all, it was the first time in almost seven months that the soon-to-be 18-year-old young gun from Winimac, Indiana had been in a racing vehicle under competitive conditions.
From winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship to having to sit out the first two races of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season due to age restrictions, Haley’s joy to be back at race pace was palpable as he climbed from his GMS Racing-prepared truck at the end of Friday’s first Truck practice session.
“It’s just nice to finally be back in a NASCAR truck again,” Haley said. “It’s been so long since I’ve raced, in general … I did the ARCA test (at Daytona in January) and a sports car test earlier this year, but it’s just been a long gap.”
“To get back in and figure things out has made me smile today. My GMS guys have given me a great AccuDoc Solutions Chevrolet, and the Hendrick horsepower under the hood has been nice to have as well. It’s just great … I’m just happy to be here.”
Haley ended the first practice 15th on the board, and though final practice was cancelled due to a rainstorm that drenched the ‘Paper Clip’, the young Hoosier said he and his team — led by crew chief Kevin Bellicourt — learned a lot in advance of Saturday’s Alpha Energy Solutions 250.
“We tried some stuff in practice that was a little different than what my teammates were running, and we weren’t too good … so we’re going to change back to what we know and I think we’ll be alright. It’s a different right side tire that we’re running this weekend compared to last time I was here … and that’s making me a little tight through the center (of the corner), but I’m enjoying it. It’s a blast.”
In two prior starts at Martinsville, Haley has yet to finish a Truck race due to mid- or late-race crashes, but he said the prior track time still buoys his confidence entering the weekend.
“It’s definitely a lot easier to get acclimated at a track I’ve been at, for sure,” he admitted. “Martinsville isn’t my favorite track … I’d rather be somewhere like Bristol, but it’s far from my worst track (laughs).”
Then reminded that he once said “the next track” was his favorite, the typical, cheeky side of Haley’s personality began to shine through.
“That’s what the higher-ups told me to say,” he jabbed, “but I definitely have tracks that I hate. This track is difficult, you know? It’s not like a normal short track. This weekend is just about getting used to things again, growing my confidence … and having fun again.
“When you’re out of a race car for seven months, it takes a little bit to get back used to it, but I’ll be working on it every lap and smiling along the way.”
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