Charters provide Kaulig Racing with the impetus for Cup move

LEBANON, Tenn.—If NASCAR had any concerns about the graying status in its ownership ranks, the advent of the Next Gen car has changed the dynamic in 2021.

Denny Hamlin, Justin Marks, Matt Tifft and BJ McLeod took the leap this season to get a jump on the competition.

On Friday, Matt Kaulig became the newest team owner to jump into the deep end of the NASCAR pool. Kaulig Racing announced it had acquired two charters from Spire Motorsports and will run two full-time teams with Justin Haley and a driver to be determined in 2022. 

“This is a big deal—a really big deal,” Kaulig said. “We’re just getting started in this business. I started a business out of my house in 2005 with three people. It’s been 16 years. Now we’ve progressed that to 130 offices in the U.S. and Canada and we’re a $1.5 billion corporation. Built that in a short amount of time. We’re using the same energy, culture, and everything else that we’re doing at Kaulig Racing to kind of do the same thing.”

Kaulig’s approach to growth has been conservative and steady in the Xfinity Series. He learned early in the NASCAR game that rather than simply write a check to fund another team’s efforts with his Leaf Filter sponsorship, Kaulig could learn the sport and invest in his own organization. 

In 2016, he placed Chris Rice at the helm, hired 12 employees and Kaulig Racing was born.

“We’re super young,” Kaulig said. “I’m a 48-year-old. He’s (Rice, Kaulig Racing president) a little bit younger. We’ve come up with a saying, “It’s the next generation car and the next generation owner and the next generation team. That’s what we want to be in NASCAR, a next-generation team and take over when we can.”

Haley, 22, joined Kaulig in 2019 and the organization added a second team with a rotation of drivers that included AJ Allmendinger. After winning three of the company’s first six wins, Dinger’s status was expanded to full-time this season, increasing the Kaulig stable to three full-time cars with the addition of Jeb Burton.

“To even be able to announce this, as you guys know, there are so many people hunting charters in the last year or so—and we’ve got two of them,” Kaulig said. “Chris Rice did an unbelievable job in heading that up.

“The charter system is doing exactly what NASCAR and the owners wanted it to do, originally. It took a few years to figure out what that would look like—how you would race them, how you would trade them, how you could buy them, who was going to buy them, who was going to sell them. So, it’s kind of a cool side thing people try to figure in the sport. It’s hard. There are a lot of guys trying to get them and a lot of teams trying to acquire them or sell them. 

“We’ve just been fortunate enough to be able to make that happen. That was a very big part in what we needed to do to even go Cup racing. So, we made it happen.”

The charter angle of new teams entering a sport is a story in itself. Hamlin's 23XI Racing is shopping for a second charter for 2022. GMS Racing announced its intention to graduate to Cup next year and hopes to acquire a charter before making the jump. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has expressed possible interest in expanding to Cup should a charter become available.

Add 45-five-year-old Spire Motorsports co-owners Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr to the list of the up-and-comers in the Cup garage. Spire currently has three charters—two in-house and one leased to Trackhouse Racing co-owner Justin Marks, 40. Spire was instrumental in facilitating the Marks' current charter, which expires at the season’s end—when that charter and one other will change hands and move to Kaulig.

Spire had hoped to acquire an additional charter prior to Friday’s announcement. However, the timing was of the essence for Kaulig to make their status public in an effort to secure sponsorship and attract the best possible candidate for the second team. Although Rice spent a lot of sleepless nights over the last four or five months attempting to acquire charters, he credits Spire with easing the transition and expediting the process.

“The way I look at this, this is positive for the sport,” Rice said. “This is positive what Spire Motorsports has done for the sport. They are contenders now. Anybody that has a charter can race well. Being able to let Matt Kaulig and myself and everybody at Kaulig Racing be able to get into the charter end of it is great.” 

Don’t take Spire’s charter sale as an act of desperation. Dickerson and Puchyr have a long-standing relationship with Haley’s uncle Todd Braun and are staunch supporters of the driver. Haley scored Spire's first Cup win in just his third career start on the tour. 

Spire still intends to field two cars next year—both full-time if a second charter can be secured. 

“We can’t afford to be wrong,” Dickerson said of procuring the team’s next charter. “We’re doing it the right way. We’ve been aggressive. We’ll continue to be aggressive. We’re not done.”

Haley will pilot the No. 16 Chevrolet for the full Cup season in 2021. AJ Allmendinger, who is currently second in the Xfinity standings behind the wheel of the No. 16 Chevrolet, will run a partial Cup schedule and compete for the Xfinity Series title. In addition to both drivers' plans for next season, Kaulig announced the drivers’ contracts had been extended.

“Justin has been here for three years, we know he’s going to be here much longer,” said Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice. “AJ has bought into Kaulig Racing, everybody. I want to be very clear about that. He is part of us. He is part of a lot of the decision-making that we have…we feel like AJ deserves another shot at going for the Xfinity championship.

“We’re leaning on both of these guys to bring Kaulig Racing to the next level. With these two charters, with our Xfinity program—and we’re not done yet. This is just another step towards our legacy. We appreciate everybody making it happen, especially Matt. Having a young owner like Matt Kaulig in NASCAR is not a bad thing, right?”

Rice later clarified that Allmendinger had bought into the idea of Kaulig Racing, not made a financial commitment.

"They don't need my money," Allmendinger quipped.

Absolutely not. Kaulig is the American dream, the collegiate quarterback turned successful entrepreneur who brings those life experiences to NASCAR. His enthusiasm and competitive drive emanate throughout Kaulig Racing.

“You’ve seen how we’ve progressed over the last six years,” Kaulig said. “So this is a big one in that journey to win Cup races, to win championships and just grow and be as big as we can. There’s a saying on our wall at the race shop, “Either you continue to grow or you begin to die.” So we want to keep growing and continue to grow.”

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