By Zack Albert
7 Minute Read
Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that AJ Allmendinger will return to the NASCAR Cup Series on a full-time basis in 2023, driving the team’s No. 16 Chevrolet.
The news emerged during a presentation at Kaulig Racing’s Fan Day festivities at the organization’s Welcome, North Carolina, race shop. Allmendinger will team alongside Justin Haley in the two-car Cup Series effort for team owner Matt Kaulig and team president Chris Rice next year.
It’s the latest step in a career resurgence for the 40-year-old Allmendinger, who stepped away from a full-time Cup schedule after the 2018 season before wading back into Xfinity Series competition with the Kaulig group the following year. He added to an increased Xfinity workload with partial Cup Series duty last year, bringing Kaulig its first Cup Series win in 2021 at Indianapolis.
“I’ve always told Matt and Chris over these last four years, and especially the last couple of years of doing this full time in Xfinity that I would always do what’s best for the company,” Allmendinger told NASCAR.com last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where he brought home his fourth Xfinity Series win of the season. “Something I found out when I thought I was retiring or semi-retiring when I was doing the TV side of things for NBC, I really enjoyed that side of it and needed a break from racing, at least full time.
“But as I started running a few races with Kaulig Racing the first year, and then especially in 2020, having some success, like the weekends I wasn’t there, I kind of really started to miss it. And that’s what led to doing the Xfinity side of it full time. And out of all of it, I’ve just really have enjoyed the team, the atmosphere at the race track, the atmosphere away from the race track, and I thoroughly just enjoy everybody and appreciate and love the hard work, the support and the confidence that they give me. And so yeah, I wanted to be fully open to whatever they wanted to do.”
Kaulig went full-time Cup Series racing this season, jumping in with two charters to field the No. 31 Chevrolet for Haley and the No. 16 Chevrolet for a rotating cast of drivers — Allmendinger, Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric. With Allmendinger moving to a full schedule, Kaulig will now have two drivers eligible to compete for the Cup Series title next season.
Allmendinger said the organization’s plan all along was to run a single driver in the No. 16 ride next season, and that the full-time opportunity was there for him if he’d pressed for it. But Allmendinger said bolstering the Cup Series program couldn’t come at the expense of the Xfinity Series outfit, which gave Kaulig his team-ownership start and what Allmendinger called “the heart of our company.”
“That was Matt and Chris’ decision because that program’s gotta be good because that’s Matt and Chris’ baby and it always will be, no matter what,” Allmendinger said. “Cup program, for sure, it’s got to be strong. But you know, that’s a process probably longer than I’m here, right? … To help develop it full time, that’s something I’m really looking forward to, and hopefully, helps us take the next step just whether it’s testing or sim work or just focusing on that car every week.”
That news has a full endorsement from Rice, who was promoted from general manager to team president in 2019.
“I think what AJ brings to us is the familiarity of the same driver in that car all the time and just to continuously grow that program,” Rice said. “I mean, we’re one year in, and I know we won last year, but you know, that’s still hard to do. I’m just really excited. He wants to do it. You know, we love him and we’re gonna miss him doing the Xfinity program. But I think what we’ve got going on there, and him helping with that will still be good. So pretty excited.
“At the same time, I don’t want to be here every Sunday to keep him calm,” Rice added with a laugh, noting Allmendinger’s sometimes animated transmissions over the team radio. “So I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
It’s also been quite the jump for Kaulig Racing, which entered NASCAR racing as a single-team Xfinity operation in 2016. It’s grown into a three-car armada on that side, and the organization that first dipped its toe into Cup Series waters with a Daytona 500 one-off in 2020 is now finding its footing in stock-car racing’s big leagues.
Allmendinger is regaining that footing after a circuitous path back to Cup competition. He earned veteran status with stops at the former Red Bull team, teams owned by Richard Petty and Roger Penske before settling down with JTG-Daugherty Racing — a union that produced the first Cup Series victory for both, in 2014 at Watkins Glen.
When that partnership ran its course after five-plus seasons together, Allmendinger stepped away and found a role for 2019 with NBC Sports as a broadcaster for multiple forms of motorsports. When Rice came calling later that year with the chance for a handful of spot starts in Xfinity, Allmendinger found his future home.
“When we hired him five years ago, I took a leap of faith when I called him. And it was like, ‘Hey, can you come help us?’ He did,” Rice said, noting the multitude of stories that have emerged since. He can laugh about it now, but issues in post-race tech led to Allmendinger being disqualified from his first two Xfinity starts with the team. Adding an extra layer of insult to the latter DQ, Rice said the team had neglected to book him a hotel room for the weekend. Much more recently, the stories involve trophies — including the hardware earned for two consecutive Xfinity regular-season crowns.
“He bought in and he believed,” Rice says. “He bought in and that’s what’s key to mine and his relationship. I buy into no matter how he feels, how crazy he sounds on the radio. I mean, I’m still gonna love him no matter how mad he gets. And that’s what makes us a good … I want to say a couple, but it’s like a weird couple, right? So he’s just, he’s one of those guys that you want on your side, you know. No matter what — good or bad — you want him on your side.”
The buy-in has been mutual.
“Chris, the first thing he said, from day one, he’s like, I don’t want you miserable. Like, I just don’t want you to go back to that place that you were at before,” Allmendinger says. “At the end of the day and probably as weird as it sounds because I’ve raced my whole life, I’m probably more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been, meaning we’ve had success and I’ve checked off a lot on my wish list of what I’d love to do. And you know, that was tough because as I thought I was ending the first time, I was like, ‘well, you know, I’ve had an OK career I guess, you know, I’ve won in a lot of different things, which not a lot of people can say that but man, I wish I could have done this or done that or just had some success.’ Well, it’s kind of happened now.”
Though Wednesday’s announcement turned some of the organization’s attention toward next year, Allmendinger has plenty still to achieve in the remaining weeks of this season. He has one Cup Series start left on his 2022 schedule — Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM) — and the five-race home stretch to the Xfinity Series Playoffs, where he is already locked into the Round of 8.
It’s a distinctive pair of opportunities for Allmendinger to help further the mission for Kaulig’s long-term goals, but also to continue the veteran driver’s career revival.
“There’s so much more to do, like really wanting to work as hard as I can to keep pushing forward and hopefully help us,” Allmendinger says. “And that’s what I’ve told them is, as long as you think I’m helping us, I want to keep doing it. The moment you think I’m not helping us, please tell me and then we can talk about something else. We can go a different direction or I can move away from driving and be just part of the team if that’s what you want it to be, but I do feel like I’m at the best I’ve ever been in my stock-car life, and I’ve gotten better and so it was more about why I wanted to do it.
“It may be because of confidence, it may be naïve, it may be dumb and it might be a combination of everything, but I truly believe if we keep getting better, and I keep getting better, we can go run with the top teams. I may be dumb as hell to think that right now, and it’s naïve or confidence that maybe shouldn’t be there, but I really believe if we keep doing the right things and keep pushing forward and getting better, like we can go run with these guys.”