Most Rapid City Rush fans are well aware that Spire Sports + Entertainment, the majority ownership group of the team, is well rooted in motorsports, particularly NASCAR. After all, who could forget the July 2019 Gander RV 400 at Pocono that featured the Rush as the primary sponsor on a Cup Series car?
It was just 365 days ago that Spire Motorsports pulled off the unthinkable with its #77 car. As a first-year chartered team at the NASCAR Cup Series level, and with 20-year old rookie Justin Haley making only his third-career Cup Series start behind the wheel, the 77 car earned its first win.
As far as NASCAR is concerned, it’s arguably one of the biggest upsets in the history of motorsports.
“I find it coincidental to put this in hockey terms, but this upset for us is on par with the 1980 Winter Olympics ‘Miracle on Ice’ between the United States and the Soviet Union,” said T.J. Puchyr, co-owner of Spire Sports + Entertainment. “This was such an underdog story, looking back on it. We started 34th and won at Daytona, one of the biggest stages in racing next to maybe Indianapolis. It was really cool, and a lot of fun.”
“The numerology behind it is astounding,” recalled Joey Dennewitz, Team President of Spire Motorsports. “Peter Sospenzo, our Crew Chief, and I love the numerology: 77 got a win on 7/7, we had pit stall #27, and the race ended on Lap 127, which, coincidentally enough, was the only lap we led in the entire race. In a Vegas casino sense, we hit 7’s across the board and won big. It’s awesome to look back on it a year later and see how much we’ve grown from the win.”
Spire Motorsports has had a hand in various capacities throughout the sport. Not only has most of its staff competitively raced through various levels of motorsports, but the group also operates Knoxville Raceway, a dirt track in Iowa that’s considered the “The Sprint Car Capitol of the World”. Additionally, Spire represents drivers across all platforms of racing, including the NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity, and IndyCar. On December 4, 2018, Spire purchased the charter to Furniture Row Racing, and announced they’d field the 77 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE with multiple drivers throughout the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Charters in NASCAR guarantee qualification into every race during a NASCAR Cup Series season. There are 36 charters across the series, and 40 participants in each race. Additionally, a charter guarantees a base revenue for each race, regardless of finish, for each member under a charter. The Furniture Row Racing team operated from 2005-2018, winning the Monster Energy Cup Series Championship in 2017 with Martin Truex Jr. as its driver.
Being a newly chartered team, Spire Motorsports understood fully that there would be a major transitional period.
“We had looked at a racing charter for quite some time, and actually tried to get one for two other groups. They both passed on the Furniture Row charter,” Puchyr stated. “We kept looking at the numbers, and decided it was time to take a leap of faith and do it ourselves. We’ve been in motorsports for a very long time and working for other people. To be candid, we still help consult with other race teams and drivers. Chip Ganassi always taught Jeff [Dickerson] and I to ‘own your own properties’, so we decided to make a play, and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since.
“Our goal in 2019 was to survive and advance, and lay the foundation to build something,” Puchyr continued. “We vowed to build it the right way, build it slow, service the debt on the loan, and build something we could have for years to come.”
The building process has included many drivers throughout the team’s first season and a half. Quinn Houff, who raced the 77 car when the Rush and Arizona Coyotes were the sponsor at Pocono in July of 2019, along with Ross Chastain, Reed Sorenson, and Jamie McMurray are just a handful of the drivers that have piloted the 77 car. On July 7, 2019, the 77 car’s keys were handed to 20 year-old rookie Justin Haley for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, his third career start at the Cup Series level.
“Justin was an easy selection for us. He’s a great plate racer, and we had a sponsorship with the Fraternal Order of Eagles,” Puchyr added on Haley’s selection. “He’s also the nephew of Todd Braun, who owned Braun Motorsports. They owned an expanding program that I used to run back in the day. The Braun family has done so much for me in my career and means the world to me, so in every sense, this was a family affair for all of us.”
“I agree, this was absolutely a family mentality for us,” Dennewitz interjected. “To see the ragtag group that came together to make this happen was special for everybody. We were brand new to the game in running a team, Justin was brand new in driving the car, and we were able to put this all together, hit 7’s on the same day, and make this upset even more impactful.”
The race was supposed to be on July 6th, but rain postponed the race to a day later on the 7th.
Keep that in the back of your head, because in this instance, that’s called “foreshadowing”.
Despite the elements, Dennewitz made sure to clean up some things regarding the driving of the car heading into race weekend.
“Justin was in our car in Talladega earlier in the year, and we blew our pit row entrance on a green flag pit stop and ran up front as a result. When we ran up front, that made me a nervous wreck just because of how risky it is by nature,” Dennewitz recalled. “For us, its very easy to end up in a crash if you’re running near the front, and that’s exactly what happened. We got in a wreck and it ruined our day. Because of that, my mindset entering the weekend of Daytona was asking the spotter and the driver to practice coming into pit row so that they could hit their green flag pit stops right, and make sure that we stayed near the back of the pack so we could conserve the car. That way we wouldn’t get caught in a wreck and we’d still be ok going into the end of the race. Those two things allowed us to be in a position to win the race.”
Haley started off the race in 34th, and stayed near the back of the pack for the vast majority of the race, playing into the team’s strategy defined by Dennewitz.
In the final stage of the race, “The Big One” occurred, and changed the trajectory of the finale. In motorsports, “The Big One” is a phrase that is used to describe a crash that involves five or more cars. On lap 119, Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer were in the midst of a heated exchange for the lead spot, and it resulted in a crash that took 17 total cars out of the race.
All of a sudden, the Spire Motorsports 77 car skyrocketed from the back of the pack to 11th.
“A yellow caution flag came out for the wreck, and we were now in the 11th spot. It was pretty crazy,” Dennewitz remembered. “I was thinking to myself that 11th would be a phenomenal finish for us. I was really happy with how well we managed things. Keith Barnwell, our spotter, and Peter Sospenzo, our Crew Chief, did a phenomenal job managing this race and putting us in a position to where we were just outside of the top 10. They were instrumental to our success that day.”
Rain started to lightly scatter on the track as all of this took place. Shortly after the jump to just outside of the top 10, the 77 car improved to 3rd after cars ahead went to pit row.
“Shortly after, nine cars in front of us pitted, and now all of a sudden we’re in 3rd!” Dennewitz exclaimed. “Now I’m thinking 3rd is even better than 11th! This is going to be a wonderful day for us, especially if the rain continues to fall. I kept refreshing the weather radar feed over and over again on my phone just to see what was coming.”
NASCAR continued to fly the caution flag as they cleaned up from the previous wreck, then gave a “caution and one to go” signal, meaning the race would restart with a green flag on the next lap around. Knowing this, the two cars in front of Haley, Landon Cassill and the leader, Kurt Busch, went to pit row.
The 77 car was officially in first place.
“I remembered seeing the two leading cars go to pit, and realized ‘oh my…we’re leading the race!” Dennewitz recalled with excitement. “At that moment, all I thought was ‘oh God, PLEASE don’t stop raining. Sure enough, I’ll be damned, there was a lightning strike within eight miles of the track, and it caused a minimum 30-minute delay.”
Then began the ever-so-nerve-wracking “waiting game”.
“In a situation like this, its easy to get into ‘political defense mode’,” Dennewitz explained. “If you’re running 11th in the situation, you need the race to restart so you can fight for a higher finish. If you’re in the lead like we were, and it’s raining all around you and there’s lightning everywhere, you don’t want it to stop. You want the race called as soon as possible.
“After the lightning delay started, we went through roughly three and a half hours of pure agony,” Dennewitz continued. “Every time there was a lightning strike, the minimum 30-minute clock reset, similar to baseball lightning delay rules. I was watching this storm and how it was traveling, and it just wouldn’t let up. Eventually, they tried to restart the race, and the very second everyone got in their cars, another lightning strike was detected. They tried to restart again after that, and by then I was thinking to myself that it would be good to get back to racing. Our team got some great attention, but now we’d get back into the race and see how it played out. Then there was another lightning strike, and another delay. After that, my hope was renewed that we might just call this race and declare it finished.
“After the three-hour wait, Chip Wile, the President of Daytona Speedway, pulled me aside in a closet and told me very secretly that we were going to win the race, and that they were going to make the announcement in the next fifteen minutes,” Dennewitz concluded. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Spire Motorsports prayers were answered. The rain never let up, and in one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, Spire’s 77 car with a starting position of 34th was declared the winner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Puchyr felt similar emotions to Dennewitz as the race played out in front of him.
“Joey was in the media center, and I was sitting with Kim, my girlfriend, in the lounge almost the whole time,” Puchyr said. “I paced for a little bit. Everyone’s texting me saying ‘if you’re going to get [a win], this would be how it happens’. I’ve been around and involved in racing since I was five years old. I just couldn’t believe it. Once we got to the end, my hope started spiking, and I started to believe that we had a great shot to win. To Joey’s earlier point, when they called them back to their cars, I agreed that it was great PR and exposure for our team. It was a good run, but then it rained again, and it all started to become very real. It didn’t hit me until I saw our team in the media center when I saw Joey and Justin [Haley], and our Crew Chief, Peter Sospenzo. It was a very proud moment for our Spire family.”
You would think after such an upset that the celebration would be hearty and legendary. Truth is, given the circumstances of the weekend, there was no immediate celebration to be had. For Puchyr, Dennewitz, and company, it was back to work for the next race almost immediately.
“Given our team and our style, people immediately expected we were going to burn Daytona down and have the party of our lives. The fact of the matter was we couldn’t afford to do that,” Puchyr explained. “We did our press conferences and finished our media obligations, and then I had to get Joey a private flight home to Charlotte to get ready for the next race. The rest of us drove from Daytona to Charlotte and got back at 3am. Before you know it, I was back in the office working at 8am trying to get sponsors for the next race.”
“TJ is right, everyone thought we were going to throw this massive party, but you have to realize the situation,” Dennewitz chimed in. “The race got postponed from a Saturday to a Sunday, taking a full day out of our prep for the next race, both on and off the track. Add the rain delays and lightning delays we faced when we raced on Sunday and we were way behind due to circumstances out of our control. Everyone thought we’d be popping champagne and taking shots at the bar, but instead we were in front of our computers firing off emails, proposals, and so much more. A sequence like that is indicative of who we are as a company. Sure, we’ll find time to celebrate this, but we have a lot of work to do to capitalize on this. This is something special, but something we have to capitalize on as well.”
To Dennewitz’ point, the team did find time to celebrate the big Spire Motorsports win two weeks later when, according to Puchyr, the team had lunch at their shop. The Braun family gave everyone champagne trophies to signify the win, and everyone got to share in the team’s triumph together.
“The most special part of the actual celebration for me was seeing the Spire Motorsports employees,” Puchyr added. “Jeff, Joey, and myself, we’ve all been a part of a win before throughout our careers, but so many of our Spire Motorsports employees hadn’t before. It was their first win, and for me, that was the most special part.”
“To echo off of that point, it really hit me when I got back to our truck to grab my things after all of the postrace media the night of the win. When I got there, I ran into our engine tuner, Bugs,” Dennewitz recalled. “Bugs has been an engine tuner in NASCAR for the last 30-something years, so you’d think he’s seen it all. Bugs, however, never won a race before. When I saw him, he had tears in his eyes because of how special a moment it was for him. That’s when the magnitude of this win hit me. You can go your entire racing career not winning a championship, or win a race, earn a pole, or not even get a top-five finish. It showed me that days like this are so special, and I’ll always look fondly on July 7th just because of that.”
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the 77 car’s improbable win for Spire Motorsports. The significance of the win is just as clear for Puchyr and Dennewitz a year later.
“I look back on the win fondly, but our team is also realistic,” Puchyr said. “Right now, we’re 33rd in points in the standings. We’re still trying to build this thing the right way. It’s great. I don’t feel bad about the rain delay win at all. It’s probably going to be awhile before we’re back in contention. We know where we are, and we know we’re still building. We’re still trying to secure sponsors and money to put into the car as we develop moving forward, so we’re still going to employ the ‘little engine that could’ mentality, and continue to grow. Our best days are still ahead of us.”
“My takeaway is simple: anything is possible, and if you put yourself in positions to take advantage of situations, then you’re gaining a grasp of the most important aspect of motorsports,” Dennewitz concluded. “Going into last season, I never thought in a million years that I’d have to prepare a ‘win bag’, which has sponsor hats for the team to wear on victory lane for photos. When we got to Daytona, I didn’t have one ready because I never thought we’d be anywhere near victory lane. That changed for me quite a bit. Now, we have one and I know where it’s at to go get it. Even though it’s still a longshot for us, anything is possible and it’s important to put yourself in situations to take advantage of opportunity like we did in Daytona a year ago.”