In just five short years, Matt Kaulig and his team – Kaulig Racing – have cemented themselves in the sport of NASCAR as strong weekly contenders. Although the success was not necessarily immediate, the team has grown and improved to the point where all three drivers are finding themselves in victory lane or in the top-five multiple times in a season. But how did the team get to this point?
Much like this writer, the idea of Kaulig Racing began in a small Northeast Ohio town. In 2005, team owner Matt Kaulig started his first business – LeafFilter Gutter Protection – in Hudson, Ohio. From there, he also founded Leaf Home Safety Solutions and Leaf Home Water Solutions. However, Kaulig’s entrepreneurial ventures did not end there.
In 2014, Kaulig began his NASCAR career by sponsoring the number 32 Go FAS Racing Ford of Blake Koch in the Sprint Cup Series. In the following season, Koch welcomed LeafFilter onto his number 8 TriStart Motorsports Toyota in the Xfinity Series. In the company’s first full season in the sport, Koch finished 17th in points and already had a new job offer in the series.
In June of 2015, Matt Kaulig decided to expand his role in NASCAR and officially started his own team – Kaulig Racing. In the offseason, it was announced that Koch would be the team’s sole driver, piloting the number 11 Chevy still sponsored by Kaulig’s LeafFilter. Joining the team that same offseason was NASCAR veteran Chris Rice who would serve as Koch’s crew chief.
Rice was born to be in NASCAR. Growing up in South Boston, Virginia, he was constantly at racetracks because his father and uncle had started their own race team. Rice served on the pit crew for the team until 1989. Starting that same year, he began work as a gasman in the Busch Grand National Series, now the Xfinity Series. During his time in the series, he worked for Rookie of the Year Hermie Sadler and his brother Elliott who won a championship in the following years.
In 2011, Rice began working as a crew chief for four different drivers within RAB Racing. He stayed in this position until 2015 when he moved to NTS to continue his role as crew chief, but also took on the title of Competition Director. He joined Kaulig Racing the following year as General Manager and the crew chief of the 11 team. By this time, Rice had established his name in NASCAR and was sure to be exactly what Kaulig needed to become a successful race team. To get the team off the ground, they entered into a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing who would provide the cars and engines.
Prior to his time with Kaulig Racing, Blake Koch had ample experience in motorsports, running in five different series, from ARCA to Sprint Cup. He found success in the K & N Pro Series West from 2008 to 2010 where he regularly ran in the top-ten. In 2009, he began competing in the Nationwide Series (now Xfinity), but did not have an exceptionally smooth transition. In his first years of competition, he regularly finished in the mid 20s with some top-20 finishes scattered about. First competing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2012, his results there were even worse.
In 2016, his first season with Kaulig Racing, a switch was flipped. In Koch’s first race with the team, he crossed the finish line in ninth position. Koch finished the 2016 season with 16 top-fifteen finishes and five top-tens, a welcome sight after his earlier struggles. He finished the season seventh in points, his highest ever across any series. He carried that momentum into the 2017 season, earning five more top-tens including his highest ever Nationwide Series finish of sixth. He finished the 2017 season eleventh in points. While seventh and eleventh may not seem like anything exceptional, they were extremely impressive for a first year team. Kaulig Racing was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
In January of 2018, Koch was told that he would no longer be piloting the 11 as Truck Series regular Ryan Truex would be taking over. Truex, brother of Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., had previously competed in all NASCAR series. Running only part time in the Monster Energy Cup Series and the Nationwide Series, he found success early in his career in the K & N Pro Series East. Here, he brought home five wins and two championships.
His time in the Camping World Truck Series won Kaulig over. He finished the 2017 season ninth in points after earning eight top-five finishes, crossing the finish line as high as second. His time in the Kaulig 11 was not nearly as successful. Bringing home only one top-five finish for the team, Truex finished the 2018 season 12th in points. While this wasn’t far off from Koch’s result the year prior, Kaulig was ready to move forward – in more ways than one.
Earlier in the 2018 season, it was announced that Kaulig Racing was going to field a second car in the September 8th race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Former Xfinity Series champion Austin Dillon would drive the number 10 Chevy, bringing home an eighth place finish. The car would remain part-time the following year, with a myriad of drivers behind the wheel.
In December of 2018, Kaulig Racing announced that NCWTS championship contender Justin Haley would be taking over the 11 from Truex for the upcoming season. Haley showed great promise for the young team, earning numerous victories in multiple of the lower series. While he only ran part time in the ARCA Menards Series, he brought home three victories between 2016 and 2017. He also found success in the K & N Pro Series East, earning the championship in 2016 in a season where he won twice and only finished outside of the top-five once.
He began his career in the top three NASCAR series with his NCWTS debut in 2015. He grabbed the attention of Matt Kaulig in the 2018 season where he contended for the championship, bringing home third. In that season, he earned six top-ten finishes and three victories. While the Xfinity Series took some getting used to, he by no means had a bad rookie year. Ending the season 12th in points, Haley brought home four top-five finishes and only finished outside of the top-30 four times. The 2020 season brought out the driver that Kaulig and Rice knew they had hired. Competing for the championship and finishing the season in third, Haley earned seven top-five finishes and drove to victory lane three times – a record for Kaulig. While without a win so far this season, he is still the strong and dominant driver that he was in 2020. Bringing home three top-fives and multiple runs of top-tens, Justin Haley is proving to be a vital asset for the future of Kaulig Racing.
In the summer of 2019, Kaulig announced that they would run a third car – the 16. The car would run one race with Xfinity regular Ross Chastain behind the wheel. He proved to be the perfect candidate to drive the car because he brought Kaulig Racing their first ever win. He wheeled the car to the front for 49 total laps and won the first stage. In their fourth year of operation, Kaulig Racing had done what they set out to do – win races. Impressing Kaulig, Chastain became the full-time driver of the 10 car in 2020.
Making only two starts in the K & N Pro Series East, Chastain spent most of his time in the Truck and Xfinity Series. Starting his truck career in 2011, he did not find true success until 2019 when he won three races and finished second in points for Niece Motorsports. His first season in the Xfinity Series, 2014, was relatively quiet as he only ran seven races. In 2015, he began driving for JD Motorsports full-time and stayed there for the next four years. His first win came with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018 at Las Vegas. He began running the 10 car for Kaulig in 2019 and made one start in the 16, the race at Daytona that he ended up winning.
Chastain put together an impressive season for Kaulig in 2020, finishing the season seventh in points. After failing to qualify in the season opener, he went on a five race top-ten streak. He earned fifteen top-five finishes that season, finishing in second position five times. While he was providing the consistency and points that Kaulig needed, he would not pilot the 10 for the 2021 season as he signed with Chip Ganassi Racing as a full-time Cup Series driver. The empty seat would eventually be given to Jeb Burton, son of Cup driver Ward Burton.
Making only two starts in the ARCA Series, Burton’s career began in the NCWTS. Driving for multiple teams since his rookie year in 2012, Burton found the most success with Turner Scott Motorsports in 2016. Winning a race and bringing home four other top-fives, he finished the season fifth in points. After having another successful season in 2017 with ThorSport Racing, Burton moved onto the Xfinity Series part-time. He ran select races with multiple teams from 2013 to 2018, but settled in with JR Motorsports part-time in 2018. Earning five top-five finishes over his two seasons there, he earned a full-time spot with Kaulig for the current season. He earned his first career win with the team at Talladega after taking the lead before rain forced the race to end early. He has earned four other top-fives, and is looking like a strong contender for the playoffs.
Circling back to the 16, it would prove to be Kaulig’s most successful car. After it brought the team their first win in 2019, veteran AJ Allmendinger took the wheel for select races in 2020. Beginning his career in open wheel racing, Allmendinger started in NASCAR in 2006. While that season yielded two DNQs in the Cup Series, he began to find his footing in 2010 with Richard Petty Motorsports. His experience in open wheel racing proved to be an asset in the 2014 season where he won his first Cup Series race at Watkins Glen with JTG Daugherty Racing. He stayed with the team until 2018, joining Kaulig the following year. While his diverse and impressive motorsports career is far too much to cover in this article, it is worth noting that he has earned wins in the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series, the Rolex Sports Car Series, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Champ Car World Series, the Atlantic Championship, and the Barber Dodge Pro Series. He has simply “found his groove” in the Xfinity Series.
After failing to qualify at the Daytona Xfinity opener in 2020, it only took him two more tries before he found victory lane in the 16. His next seven attempts yielded five finishes inside the top-ten and only two outside. In the next race, he was victorious again, bringing Kaulig their first multi-win season. This impressive showing earned “The Dinger” a full time ride in the 16 for 2021 where he has earned three wins and eleven top-fives so far. In his time with the team, he has provided a strong veteran presence that the younger drivers have looked up to for help. He and Haley especially have struck a special bond in their time together, and Allmendinger’s expertise has arguably shaped Haley into the championship-caliber driver he is today.
In 2020, Kaulig Racing began their Cup Series involvement. Entering the 16 car with Justin Haley behind the wheel, the team finished the Daytona 500 in 13th position. Not bad at all for their first Cup race, especially at the series’ most prestigious race. Two different drivers have taken the reins in 2021 with Kaz Grala starting the 500 and Talladega and Allmendinger taking four other races (so far). August 15th marked yet another milestone for the team as AJ Allmendinger brought home their first Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. This win proved the fact that they could compete at NASCAR’s top level, and will hopefully give them momentum for next year.
As of April 28th, Kaulig Racing has been putting the pieces together for a full-time Cup Series entry. Matt Kaulig and his team announced on June 18th that the team had found their rides and their driver. The team had purchased two charters from Spire Motorsports – the team that Justin Haley currently runs Cup Series races with – and would be using one of them full-time and one part-time. At that time, Kaulig also announced that Haley would be driving the full-time entry. In the part-time entry, it will be AJ Allmendinger and perhaps a second driver. While competing part-time, Allmendinger will also return to the Xfinity Series full-time to attempt to bring Kaulig Racing their first championship.
So that brings us to our original question. How did Kaulig Racing get here, and in such a short amount of time? Simply put, they just did everything right. Matt Kaulig got early experience in the sport by putting his company on the side of a car. Then he hired the right people. Chris Rice brought a veteran presence with a wealth of experience, knowledge, and talent. Since the beginning, Kaulig and Rice have worked together to hand pick the best possible drivers for the team. From those who only ran a part-time season like Austin Dillon to those that have brought the team their most wins like AJ Allmendinger, Kaulig Racing has shaped each and every one of their drivers to be the most successful versions of themselves that they can be. On top of that, the drivers have forged an extremely close relationship both amongst themselves and with the ownership. The drivers work for the team, and the team works for them. Kaulig Racing has proven to be one of the most successful Xfinity teams in recent history by building the perfect team, and it is clear that they could bring this same success to the Cup Series for years to come.
Featured photo from Chris Graythen.