Inaugural event thrills with close finishes, tight racing
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Canadian teenager Cameron Hayley made certain Tuesday night that the inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach went 3-for-3 on last-lap madness, emerging from a frantic green-white-checkered finish to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series event at Daytona International Speedway.
Hayley found an opening when race leader Michael Self spun after contact from Gray Gaulding on the final lap. Gaulding couldn't keep his car in the groove on the final corner, though, allowing Hayley to pull alongside and scrape his way to the lead under the checkered flag.
The result meant that the leader on the white-flag lap failed to win any of the three races in the inaugural exhibition.
Earlier Tuesday, Steve Park prevailed in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event after nudging Mike Stefanik from the lead on the final lap. The previous night, Kyle Larson pushed C.E. Falk aside as the two headed for the checkered flag on the temporary .4-mile oval on the superspeedway's backstretch.
Hayley was shuffled out of the top 10 in the final 25 laps but rallied to sixth place in time for the K&N race's final restart. Given the previous two outcomes, the 16-year-old Calgary resident felt that another last-lap clash was inevitable.
"When I was sitting there on that last restart, all I was thinking was they're going to wreck in front of me," said Hayley, who only led the final lap. "My crew chief and my spotter were coming over the radio saying, 'just be patient, be patient. When you see a hole, go.' "
Hayley went, but Self was left to limp home eighth as the final car on the lead lap.
"Well, it's the same thing that's happened all weekend," said Self, who saw a significant lead evaporate after the last of 10 caution periods bunched the field. "You saw it in the late model race and in the modified race … it's short-track racing. You come in here to race for 20 grand, that's huge. All the fame in the world in this race, biggest race of the year, so we knew it was coming."
Gaulding held on to finish second in his first K&N series start with Bryan Ortiz, Ryan Gifford and Ben Kennedy completing the top five. Pole-starter Greg Pursley, who led the first 127 laps before a spin, settled for ninth place, the first driver one lap down.
In the opener, Park emerged from a race full of mayhem by causing a dose of his own. The former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver rose from 30th starting position in the 33-car field and survived a madcap race of 17 caution periods and two red flags.
After taking the white flag in second place on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, Park drove in deep under intense pressure from Eric Goodale in third place and turned Stefanik around in the second turn.
"I truly hate it for Mike," Park said. "Mike had a car capable of winning the race, there's no doubt about that, but the fastest car didn't win tonight. I think just the luckiest car did."
Stefanik, who was scored 13th as the first driver one lap down, was understandably livid after leading 24 of the final 25 laps, save for the final one. In a live interview with SPEED, the seven-time modified champ paused and said "I'm going to say the wrong thing here, I'm that freaking pissed," before punctuating the brief exchange with an expletive.
The race was left wide-open when pole-starter Todd Szegedy pulled off the track with suspension damage after convincingly leading the first 126 of 151 laps. That left Stefanik out front with a hungry Kyle Larson, making his first modified start, second in line.
Larson's night ended when he slowed on the next-to-last restart and the field stacked up behind him. He retired with front-end damage, finishing six laps down in 16th place.
Bowman Gray Stadium regular Danny Bohn was uninjured after a wild ride put his No. 65 car on its roof just past the start-finish line. Bohn's car tilted over after contact with the outside wall and the car of Ryan Preece in the 119th lap, bringing out the second red flag of the night.
Goodale, Ted Christopher, Doug Coby and Patrick Emerling completed the top five.
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