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Spire played the game right and got a NASCAR victory

First Cup win for Justin Haley

Justin Haley, left, gets a hug from his mother after he was declared the winner in a rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — When Furniture Row Racing decided to fold, team owner Barney Visser enlisted an industry agency to help him sell off his assets.

Visser wanted Spire Sports and Entertainment to sell the charters he owned that guaranteed entry into the top racing series in the United States. Spire scoured the garage for a buyer, searched for prospects outside of racing and came up empty every time.

So Visser floated an idea past Spire co-owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr: Why didn’t the two of them buy a charter and start a race team?

“When he said it, we straight up told him we can’t afford it,” Dickerson told The Associated Press on Monday. “That was our hope he’d cut us a deal or give us some special financing or something.”

Visser wanted $6 million — “sticker price,” Dickerson said — and he and Puchyr partnered on the bank loan that officially launched Spire Motorsports the day after last season’s final race. Now the team has a victory, a fluke win at Daytona International Speedway because 20-year-old Justin Haley just happened to have cycled into the lead before horrible weather stopped the race.

In the 2 hours, 12 minutes it took NASCAR to decide whether to call the race, drama and debate surrounded the Spire situation. Haley himself admitted had racing resumed, he would have been quickly passed and a rain storm was his only shot at collecting the checkered flag in his third career Cup start.

Beyond that, though, was another question: Did Spire deserve the trip to victory lane?

Some suggested Dickerson and Puchyr made a cash-grab when they bought Visser’s charter because it should pay for itself in two years. Others believe they are gaming the system, and aren’t really a true race team.

The cars they have used through the first 17 races of the season are built by Premium Motorsports, where Spire leases shop space. The team runs at the back of the field, uses different drivers every week and Haley was only in position to win the race because he was running 27th when 17 cars at the front of the field were knocked out of the race in a crash. It gave crew chief Peter Sospenzo the luxury to adamantly insist Haley would not pit for gas or tires or any reason at all — they were going to stay on the track, see where they landed after the other remaining cars played their hands, and then pray like never before for the mother of all rainstorms.

“It’s not lost on me that luck was on our side,” Puchyr said. “But I’m not going to feel bad about it at all.”

There is a misnomer that Spire is nothing more than an agency that represents drivers and tries to find them seats. But for years the North Carolina-based company had been working with some of the top teams in NASCAR in facilitating sponsorship deals, bringing new business into the sport, recruiting employees, headhunting or, as Puchyr says, “we’ve put a lot of money in a lot of people’s pockets in this garage.”

They have been urged by some of their mentors — think Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, Toyota, the late Harry Scott, former NASCAR team owner Todd Braun — to refocus some of their energy on acquiring something of their own and Spire did just that.

“We were perfectly content living in the margins and being behind the scenes,” Dickerson said. “But the agency business is quite difficult. You are always waiting for someone. Waiting for someone to make a decision to complete a deal. We were not in control of our own destiny and we wanted to try to do something on our own.”

So Spire bought a minor league hockey team, a promotion company that runs 40 short track races across the country and they run Knoxville Speedway in Iowa. Then came Visser’s offer. Now Spire owns a winning race team.

They make no apologies for the path that got them to victory lane and are adamant that NASCAR, under the new direction of Chairman Jim France and President Steve Phelps, is where Spire needs to be.

“Everybody had a chance to buy the charter and didn’t,” Dickerson said. “We don’t want to race this way forever, piecing it together and not winning races. But we literally are betting on the model of the sport coming our way in the next few years so we can race straight up. We have been building teams for everyone else in the garage, and now we are building ours.”

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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