They may keep score on paper, but NASCAR races are run on tracks, where the competition has evened out thanks to two developments: the introduction of the Next Gen car and the emergence of young teams. Kaulig Racing and 23XI Racing scored their breakthrough wins in the Cup Series a year ago, and Trackhouse Racing has made it to Victory Lane twice in 2022.
All in all, the newcomers are coming along just fine. Owner Matt Kaulig and team president Chris Rice of Kaulig Racing sat down with Sportscasting.com shortly before the All-Star Race to discuss a variety of topics, and they couldn’t be more pleased with how far they’ve come in the first full season in NASCAR’s top series.
Three teams, three paths to the NASCAR Cup Series
Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin made a splash by jumping into the NASCAR Cup Series as owners feet first last year, building from scratch. Then, 23XI Racing added a second car this year. Justin Marks started with one car last season and expanded Trackhouse Racing to two teams in 2022 by buying out the NASCAR assets of Chip Ganassi Racing.
Kaulig Racing entered the fray in more methodical fashion. Kaulig started an Xfinity Series program in 2016, won its first races in 2019 with AJ Allmendinger and Ross Chastain driving, and dipped a toe into the Cup Series last season with nine appearances.
Along the way, the semi-unthinkable happened: Allmendinger won on the Indianapolis road course after Chase Briscoe wiped out leader Denny Hamlin. Owner Matt Kaulig had already made the decision to go full-time in 2022, but the victory that day completely changed the mindset.
“I think it took pressure off this year and allowed us to start building an organization,” he told Sportscasting.com. “When you go full-time Cup racing, especially with two cars, it’s going to take some time to just understand what you have.
“Cup racing is different than Xfinity racing, which is different than truck racing. And I feel like our organization has done a really great job. Our drivers and crew chiefs, everybody’s doing it, really.”
Chris Rice has been engineering Kaulig Racing’s expansion
Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice grew up in a racing family and has worked in every imaginable role from small-town tracks to NASCAR’s national series, and Matt Kaulig lavished praise in discussing the development of the Xfinity and Cup Series teams.
The expansion into Cup racing wasn’t a license to abandon the Xfinity operation. In fact, Kaulig Racing recruited defending champion Daniel Hemric and respected veteran Landon Cassill last offseason to complement perennial threat AJ Allmendinger. Rice couldn’t cannibalize the shop roster to get the Cup Series team fully staffed. Nor was it as simple as raiding other teams for engineers, mechanics, and pit crews since many quality candidates had job security with established teams.
Taking inventory of where Kaulig Racing has been and is going midway through the regular season, Rice admits he would have done one thing differently.
“I told Matt this probably two or three weeks ago. I said I really messed up because we felt like we could do it a lot less people,” he said. “At the Xfinity program, we have ways we do things. We had transferred it to Cup, and you’ve seen over the last month with the ‘31’ car, it’s working.
“But we needed way more people than I anticipated to be able to do the same things we do in Xfinity. That’s what kind of what took me off guard, and it’s just so hard.”
That being said, the plan is working. Kaulig Racing doesn’t have the two victories of Trackhouse’s Ross Chastain or the Kansas win by 23XI’s Kurt Busch, but Justin Haley shook off a tough start to the season by becoming one of the pleasant surprises among less-heralded drivers. Starting on the Bristol dirt, he drove the No. 31 Chevy to 14th, 12th, and 11th place in consecutive weeks, then capped it with third place at Darlington. With five more laps and a little more tread on his tires, he could have rolled onto Victory Lane that day.
Kaulig Racing is excited to be part of the Cup Series’ next generation
Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, and other older NASCAR Cup Series teams benefit from decades of institutional knowledge and longstanding connections with sponsors and manufacturers. Still, Matt Kaulig is excited by the way his team and other newer operations are making their presence felt in Year 1 of the Next Gen car.
He tips his cap to 23XI Racing and Trackhouse for what they’ve been able to accomplish, even if Kaulig Racing scored a big first a season ago at Indy.
“I’m super proud of what both teams are doing,” he said. “We all look at each other as the next generation of ownership. I think both of those organizations have done a great job. They both have wins this year, (and) we’re super proud of the fact that we got a win last year before they did.”