Justin Haley’s K&N East title a family affair
The morning of the most important race of his career, Justin Haley sought the council of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Dover International Speedway, site of the K&N Pro Series East season finale on Sept. 30, was drenched in rain that morning. But the finale wouldn’t begin until late afternoon, giving the 17-year-old Haley plenty of time to get “in the right mindset” for the 126-lap race.
If he finished 25th or better, he would be the series champion. No big deal. How did he get his mind prepared for such an occasion?
On Haley’s phone is an app called “Motivate.” It contains seven motivational recordings, with titles that include “Arnold’s Wisdom,” “Prove Them Wrong” and “Why Do We Fall?” Ranging between three and a half to nine minutes, the recordings are spliced together snippets from sermons, famous speeches and movies, including the “Rocky” franchise.
“It’s almost like listening to Bible verses, just a little more amped up,” Haley says. “I listened to (all of them). I listened to them before I went to bed the previous night, I listened to them while I was in the shower. Getting in that mindset was the biggest thing and just wanted to be extra sure I could use that, and I could deliver the best performance in my ability to my team that day.”
While Stallone and Schwarzenegger may have psyched Haley up on the day, they were only reinforcing the work done over the last eight years by his parents.
OUT OF TOWN
Melissa Braun-Dennis was nervous.
Unlike her husband, Nate Dennis, she wasn’t in Dover to experience her son’s big day.
Instead, she was about 730 miles west in Winamac, Indiana, the town she and her family spent their entire lives in until Haley’s budding racing career uprooted them to Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. She was back home in Northern Indiana visiting her oldest daughter, who attends a preparatory school that was holding its first “Parent’s Day” of the year.
“I had to sit out on this one,” says Braun-Dennis, a mother of four. “It was pretty hard to do that.”
It was hard because even with Haley’s 25-point cushion for the championship, there were lingering doubts.
“There was always that thought of ‘What if?’ '' says Braun-Dennis. “What if we’ve come this far and it doesn’t happen and how are we going to handle ourselves tomorrow? How are we going to be able to recover quickly and not let this really get us down?”
As the laps ticked off in Dover, Haley’s mother drove down the highway to her mother-in-law’s house. The road didn’t always have her attention.
“I had the race on my phone and was trying to check it periodically ... safely, while driving down the road,” Braun-Dennis says. “There was a point where I actually had to get out of the car and go inside a gas station to get a drink because I was so nervous.”
Braun-Dennis finally arrived at her mother-in-law’s for dinner. She entered the house to “all the aunts and uncles ... staring at their phones.”
She began waiting for a specific message from her husband.
Nate Dennis has witnessed every lap of his stepson’s career.
It began when a 9-year-old Haley asked his mother if he could pursue a career in quarter midgets after driving a cousin’s quarter-midget at a birthday party.
“He was showing it to all of us,” Haley recalls. “I was like ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. Can I just drive it around the driveway a few laps?’ They got it down for me, pushed me off. I think it turned into a few hundred laps. I spent countless hours there in a quarter midget and then went to my mom and said ‘I want one of these.’”
“As long as Nate does it with you, I’m fine with it,” his mother said.
Haley’s first days in a quarter midget, when they raced two cars through four classes, was the beginning of what Dennis called a “kind of funky” progression for Haley.
“Quarter midget kids start practicing at four and a half and you race at five,” Dennis says. “Justin didn’t even race in a race car until he was nine, nine and a half. I always felt like we were behind them. At the mini sprint stage, it kind of evened out a bit, where there were some kids who had been doing it the same amount of time or longer.”
But Dennis himself was as much a rookie as his stepson.
“He didn’t know a thing about racing except being a spectator, which we all know is very different from the other side of racing,” says his wife, who grew up in a family that had been around racing since the 70s. "(Nate) basically put himself out there and started asking questions and bothering people. He learned it so quickly that he found the right people for Justin and when you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.”
For a few years Haley ran street stocks and mini sprints simultaneously. It wasn’t until Haley finished second in the 2012 Tulsa Shootout in the non-winged stock class that Dennis thought “maybe we’re not wasting money.”
But Haley wasn’t seeing his family often thanks to being on the road with his stepdad.
“They would be gone three days, home four days and that was pretty much seven months out of the year,” says Braun-Dennis. “We would beg the school system to have the extra time to travel for races.
After about 18 months of that, Dennis and Haley decided to move to Mooresville, North Carolina, as he was set to begin his K&N career.
“About six months later, I decided being separated in Indiana and them being down here it wasn’t a lot of fun,” Braun-Dennis said. “We decided to move down here so we could have more family unit.”
FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME
In 2015, his first K&N season at HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, Haley competed in a full season in one series for the first time. He would win his first race on March 26, 2016, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
At Dover, Haley had a chance to bring HScott its fourth K&N East title in as many years.
“Having that pressure on me, it wasn’t the biggest concern,” Haley says. “But it was definitely there to get four consecutive. It’s just a super cool feeling to know that a start-up team four years ago could end up with four consecutive titles.”
Haley clinched the championship with his fourth-place result, ending a season that included 13 top-five finishes in 14 races.
Dennis finally got to send his wife the message she was waiting for.
“The excitement in the room and the moment when Nate said ‘I think we got it,’ it was such a huge relief,” says Braun-Dennis.
Even though Haley had won races in the last eight years, including twice in 2016, he’s never gotten to properly celebrate.
“They wouldn’t let me do a burnout after my wins this year because it’s so hard on the drivetrain and the motor and stuff like that,” Haley says. “They were like, ‘You win the championship, you get to do a burnout.’ They just kept telling me that and telling me that. I guess they were trying to motivate me.
“Once I won the championship it was, ‘Yeah, I can finally burn them down here.’ ”
As Kyle Benjamin went to victory lane for the victory, Haley took his No. 5 Chevrolet to the frontstretch. Giving him instructions over the radio was his spotter, driver coach and life coach, Michael Self.
“He was on the radio pretty in-depth, telling what to do, when to use the front brake, what gear to be in and stuff like that,” Haley says.
A month after Kyle Larson first did it in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan, Haley burned his tires down while holding his steering wheel outside his window in “probably the highlight of my career.”
“I think he’s shown me his burnout about a dozen times today,” Braun-Dennis says a few days after the race. “He always makes sure to point out the steering wheel is out the window.”
Before his first burnout, Braun-Dennis’ proudest moment from her son’s career came in August 2015.
On Aug. 19, Haley, at 16, made his first start in the Camping World Truck Series. It came at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Haley drove a truck owned by his uncle Todd Braun, who once owned Braun Racing, a small Xfinity Series team that eventually became part of the DNA of HScott Motorsports. Haley started 21st and finished 14th.
“I raced Kyle Busch for about half a lap,” Haley says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
But his first start in the lowest of NASCAR’s three national series meant even more to Braun-Dennis.
“When he was, gosh, 14 years old, we were kind of putting all of our heart and our time and our soul into everything, he looked at me one day and said ‘All I want to do is start a Truck race.’”
He did it on her 40th birthday.
“I remember that the most,” she says. “Bristol is an amazing track. It was my mother’s favorite track. His grandmother who has since passed away. They both loved racing and actually both my parents owned race teams in their careers and so for him to be there at that track on my 40th birthday was probably the biggest accomplishment.”
With his K&N title, a ride in the Truck series would be the next logical step for the teenager’s career. But there’s the awkward issue of him not turning 18 until April 28, 2017, which keeps him from competing in the series’ full schedule.
“I’m not sure about my plans for next year,” says Haley. “My birthday is kind of in the worst spot possible. I don’t turn 18 until about a quarter of the way through the season. It kind of chops out my chance of racing for the championship in a national series. With that being said, we’re trying to do something that’s going to be effective in my career.”
Wherever he winds up, he’ll have his family behind him.