In its fifth year of NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, Kaulig Racing has gone from a one-team startup to a serious threat for the 2020 championship as the league inches closer to the postseason with this week’s Kentucky Speedway doubleheader.
The organization’s trio of drivers, which includes full-time drivers Ross Chastain and Justin Haley and part-time driver AJ Allmendinger, might be the most unique teammates in the Xfinity Series garage. Each have varying degrees of experience levels, but all have united as one to achieve success in just a short amount of time.
The drivers’ stories are unique. For Allmendinger, the 38-year-old’s time at Kaulig has been a fun-filled career resurgence driving the No. 16 entry. After last competing full time with JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 NASCAR Cup Series entry in 2018, Allmendinger has earned two victories with the Kaulig group. While all signs point toward a future Cup Series ride (perhaps with Chip Ganassi Racing), Chastain, 27, is biding his time with the Chevrolet-powered No. 10 machine. Haley, 21, is still in the beginning stages of his NASCAR career. But in a short amount of time, the No. 11 driver has placed himself among a prestigious list of drivers who have won at least one race in all three national series.
“I think that helps these guys get along because it’s not three 21-year-old guys that are just competing to get to that one Cup ride,” team owner Matt Kaulig told NASCAR.com. “They’ve got different agendas. They all want to win. But I think they all feel pretty comfortable and really good with where they are in the sport.”
Both Haley and Allmendinger have gone to Victory Lane this year at Talladega Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, respectively, while Chastain earned a different kind of victory by scoring a total of $200,000 in bonuses during the final two Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races at Talladega and Pocono Raceway. Allmendinger also earned a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Haley thinks the team is hitting its rhythm as the season progresses, which he credits partly to the advent this year of Kaulig’s own in-house engineering department, a change of pace compared to previous years when Kaulig outsourced the staff from Richard Childress Racing.
“We all get along together,” Haley said after his Talladega victory. “I think the biggest thing for Kaulig is we all work as a team. We all build each other’s cars. In the shop, it’s all one group. Me, AJ and Ross have all gotten along really well. They all have a lot of knowledge. I’m pretty new to this, I’ve struggled a little bit to start. But leaning on them has been awesome.”
Talladega could be the most defining moment in the team’s young history, which was capped off by Chastain and Allmendinger celebrating with Haley after his first career victory in the Xfinity Series, a moment that saw Allmendinger sprint down pit road to the start-finish line to embrace Haley after the race.
“We’re just like a bunch of buddies in school,” Chastain said. “In all reality, I think AJ and Justin are probably a little closer honestly because they have this weird father-son dynamic. I’m just either like a distant cousin or an uncle or nephew or something. I don’t know where I fit in exactly, but I wedge myself in there.”
Those actions are no façade to satisfy sponsors or pull a publicity stunt. The camaraderie is real, but the brotherhood still doesn’t get in the way of their will to win.
“These guys genuinely like each other,” Kaulig said. “I’ve heard there are teams out there where the drivers don’t all get along. I don’t think it’s a non-competitive thing because Ross and Justin and AJ … I mean they definitely want to win. They want to beat each other. … It transfers to the whole team because those guys are the visible guys.”
To put their 2020 accomplishments to date in perspective, the three drivers have earned a combined 12 top-five finishes, which makes up more than half of Kaulig’s total of 22 top fives since its first season in 2016. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, they have also earned 53 of the organization’s 75 top-10 finishes.
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With the enhancements the organization has made to its program, especially over the past offseason, it’s clear the numbers are no fluke. While the drivers and their crews operate as three separate teams on Saturdays, it’s the work behind the scenes during the week at the race shop that unites them as one.
“It’s just like in any job, it’s leadership,” team president Chris Rice said. “You bring the drivers in and say, ‘Hey, here’s your job, this is what you’re gonna do, here’s your team.’ But everybody at Kaulig Racing works on everything. So really, you’re coming into battle with all three teams. … It starts from the top. Matt Kaulig just creating something that we can be proud of and go out tomorrow and know that we’re going to have a job, we’ll be able to go racing and do the things we love. That’s where it starts and the drivers feed off of that.”
From the drivers to the shop members, Kaulig has developed a culture that thrives on having fun to achieve success, but that doesn’t mean the young team owner doesn’t run a tight ship. From the race team to his various other business ventures, the Ohio-born team owner has used lessons learned on the football field as a former quarterback for the University of Akron Zips to transcend the organization from a one-car operation to a three-car championship-level powerhouse.
“I always say, it’s an old football term, it’s not necessarily the Xs and the Os, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes,” Kaulig said. “It’s the people, you’ve got to start with good people. They’ve gotta be good at what they do. They’ve got to be passionate about what they do, but it’s not so much the passion, it’s hard work and it’s execution. You’ve got to find people that want to do it and are good at it, then you want to improve all of your processes all of the time. You want to have continuous and never-ending improvement in everything that you do.”
So, is 2020 the year Kaulig Racing knocks off teams like JR Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske to make a title charge? Kaulig is confident, noting it’s all about carrying the momentum into the playoffs. His teams show no sign of slowing down to prevent that from happening.
“Just put yourself in position,” Kaulig said. “All you need to do is get to Phoenix (Raceway), then we know we’re as fast as anybody. The goal would be to get both of those guys (Chastain and Haley) in the Championship 4 and then you have a 50% chance of winning the championship. That’s what we’re going to do.”