Justin Haley looked like he was going to have to settle for a nice points night in his bid to advance to the championship round of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as he was in second place behind Todd Gilliland on the final lap of the JAG Metals 350.
But Gilliland, the son of racing veteran David Gilliland, ran out of gas on the backstretch after dominating the final segment of the race at Texas Motor Speedway. While Gilliland was coasting to a fourth-place finish, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet was locking himself into the championship with his third win of the season.
“That was amazing,” said Haley, who started sixth and won the first stage of the race. “I thought we had it lost there. I didn’t maximize my pit road [stop]. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can’t give up faith. The cards fell in our hands today.”
Haley and pole sitter Johnny Sauter will make up half the championship field. Sauter had two tire problems and was involved in a crash and finished 11th. The final two championship spots will be decided next weekend in Phoenix.
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“It feels good,” said Haley, who is Sauter’s teammate. “Not only does it affect my emotions and help my stress level heading into Phoenix, it’s big for the team.”
The first two stages featured seven cautions but the final stage was all green and was setting up for Gilliland’s first-career win. A quick gas-only pit stop got Gilliand in front of the field, with his Toyota only taking one can of fuel. He led by more than five seconds at one point, leading a race high 60 laps. He just didn’t lead the most important one.
“I didn’t even know we were close on fuel at all,” Gilliland said. “That’s what got us out in the lead and ultimately took our race. We’re a half a lap from a win at a place like this. We started in the back. We ran 100-percent perfect until the last half lap.”
Friday’s race was similar to the playoff opener in Canada in August. In that race Gilliland had a chance to win before a late crash and Haley was the beneficiary there as he won that race. Friday Haley’s team gave him enough fuel to get two extra laps, 21/2 more than Gilliland had.
The green-flag stops in the final stage proved pivotal. Stewart Friesen was leading the race before the pits but was too fast entering and was penalized. That opened the door for Gilliland to take the lead and get in clean air.
Haley and Brett Moffitt were the only playoff contenders to finish in the top three. Moffitt finished third and is 22 points above the cutline. Noah Gragson finished 10th and would be the final championship contender right now. Myatt Snider won the second stage of the race, his first career stage win.