DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kaulig Racing’s dreams of competing at NASCAR’s highest level will be realized on Sunday, when Justin Haley takes the green flag for the 62nd annual Daytona 500.
For both sides, it’s been a long and gritty journey to get to the pinnacle of American stock-car racing.
Haley has fought his way through the Midwest short-track ranks, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (now ARCA Menards Series East) and the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series to get to a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series ride with Kaulig, as well as this weekend’s one-off Cup start with Kaulig.
He won a championship in the East Series and took home the winner’s trophy in the Cup race at Daytona Int’l Speedway last July, in a rain-shortened 400-miler for underfunded Spire Motorsports, as a prelude to his maiden voyage in NASCAR’s biggest and most-prestigious event.
Meanwhile, Ohio businessman Matt Kaulig has built his Xfinity Series team from the ground up, slowly transitioning from journeyman status to playoff contender to race winner with his Chevrolets over the past four seasons.
Starting with Blake Koch, later moving to Ryan Truex and now working with Haley and Ross Chastain, Kaulig has given some of NASCAR’s younger personalities a shot to prove their mettle.
That philosophy will be realized in full on Sunday, as both Kaulig and Haley debut in The Great American Race.
“Man, it’s just really cool,” said Haley of putting Kaulig Racing in the Daytona 500. “They picked me up after my Truck (Series) season, actually called me up after one of my wins in the Trucks and asked me to come race for them. It’s been pretty cool to see how much faith they’ve had in me. They have enough faith to put me in their Cup car for their first Cup start … and that’s just thanks to a lot of believers behind me and Kaulig Racing, and that’s what you need as a young guy coming through the sport.
“When we have a bad day, they pick me up and when we have good days, they love me that much more,” Haley added with a grin. “They believed in me, stuck it out through our tough rookie Xfinity season and now we’re here at the biggest race in NASCAR. Not a lot of things went our way last year, with some highs and lows, but I think we’re so much stronger this year and have so much going for us.”
Haley raced his way into the Daytona 500 on Thursday night, ending the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona as the highest non-chartered driver in the field. He’ll start 33rd on Sunday afternoon, after previously locking in on his qualifying speed.
But even that was more than Haley could have dreamed, considering he was never expecting to get the call to attempt the Daytona 500 in the first place.
“I’m just glad that I got the call to do it,” noted Haley. “I was sitting in the race shop one day – I wasn’t even planning on coming, it was a Monday in the offseason – but I figured I hadn’t seen the guys in a while and I wanted to go up there and see what was going on. The next thing I knew, Chris pulled me in his office and said, ‘Hey, do you want to run the (Daytona) 500?’ And I said, what do you mean do I want to run the 500? Of course I want to run it. And now here we are.
“It’s extra special, because through more talks, he told me I could put my sponsor on it, the Fraternal Order of Eagles. They’ve been a longtime sponsor of mine. And it just all kind of worked out,” Haley added. “I love it. I love that we got Matt Kaulig in the show. Everyone has worked so hard at this, Kaulig Racing, RCR, ECR (Engines) … obviously a lot of alliances came together to make this happen and we got help from a lot of teams on (the RCR) campus.
“I’m pretty excited and hopefully we can get them all a good run on Sunday.”
As both Haley and Kaulig Racing have grown and matured, the driver noted that he doesn’t believe one side has benefitted more than the other. He believes it’s been a symbiotic union since they’ve linked up.
“I like to think of it both ways. I think we’ve grown together,” said Haley. “I think bringing in AJ Allmendinger helped a lot. We’d go to a race track or a road course and I would say something, and then AJ would back that up. And knowing that AJ backed me up and felt the same thing in the exact same race car meant a lot to them, and gave them that much more confidence in me. Even bringing in Ross (Chastain) … he hasn’t done many races for us, but having him full time as well is big for me, I think.
“Definitely, I think, we both have grown and will both continue to grow as we move through the year.”
As for his plan going into Sunday’s 500-mile race, Haley knows it will be more in-depth than last July’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, where he survived and was in just the right spot when the skies opened up.
This time, it’s about racing to a strong finish.
“It’s a different ball game,” said Haley. “This time I can actually race. I have a car that I can actually compete in, and I’m not getting told on the radio to lag back and miss wrecks. I think we’re going to have to be cautious, but we can be aggressively cautious.
“I think the biggest story for this weekend for Kaulig Racing is finishing the race,” he added. “I don’t think anyone wants to go out 20, 30, 40 laps in. We’ll have to see, but I’m really excited.”