June 28, 2022

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Sports Really Satisfies

How Matt Kaulig exceeded his own expectations in building one of NASCAR’s next generation race teams

When he first formed his own race team at the end of 2015, Matt Kaulig had one goal in mind: Compete, and maybe win a race.

An accomplished businessman and the CEO of LeafFilter Gutter Protection, Kaulig began a single-car team to race full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series after initially getting involved in NASCAR as a sponsor. With little history in racing and without an enormous amount of resources, the eventual vision for Kaulig Racing was to be able to win one Xfinity Series race — something seemingly impossible.

Seven years later, Kaulig Racing has far exceeded its original vision. The team has become an Xfinity Series powerhouse, and also got its first Cup Series win at Indianapolis a season ago. It has two full-time Cup teams complementing three full-time Xfinity teams, and Kaulig himself has become regarded as a prominent figure among a new generation of young and forward-thinking NASCAR car owners, something he could hardly have envisioned a short few years ago.

“We have far exceeded our expectations,” Kaulig told CBS Sports, reflecting on his original vision. “Just have one car, maybe we can compete for a win, let’s figure out how to do that. And I would say that was our five-year plan is figure that out. Now, we figured it out, but it just so happened to be by growing and having two cars and then having three cars and then getting a Cup team and getting two charters in the Cup Series.

“But that was our plan. Win one race. And I don’t think we ever had any other goals or visions or anything other than that.”

A former college quarterback at the University of Akron, Kaulig has overseen his race team go from a simple upstart to a model organization whose foothold in NASCAR is ever growing. This week, the team hosted an open house to show off its pristine new 32,500 square foot race shop in Lexington, N.C., which hosts the two full-time Cup teams it began fielding this season.

Kaulig’s team has become a standout success story, particularly given that its growth under someone who was previously a racing outsider was unlikely and uncommon. Through the years, many car owners have come and gone in stock car racing, as quite a number of deep-pocketed owners with lofty ambitions fail to correctly execute the team-building process or put the right, compatible personnel in-place.

But Kaulig made informed personnel choices in forming his race team, highlighted by his hire of longtime crew chief Chris Rice as team president. A lifelong racer out of Southern Virginia, Rice found he could believe that Kaulig had the right plan in place given his athletic experience and his proven business acumen.

“He knows what sports is like, he understands that things are not always gonna be great. So I knew that would be good for NASCAR, because we’re not always gonna win, right? We want to, but we’re not gonna always win,” Rice told CBS Sports. “I knew that was gonna work. … I knew that he was a rockstar at running a business, entrepreneurial. So I knew that he had the want-to. He’s a race fan, he wanted to win trophies, and I knew he was a guy that was gonna be here a long time. And he’s gonna be here a long time.”

Kaulig Racing built a foundation in its first two seasons with journeyman Blake Koch as its driver, then put Ryan Truex in the driver’s seat for one year in 2018. But in 2019, Kaulig settled on its major key component with the hire of Justin Haley as the team’s “franchise” driver. Haley drove the team’s flagship No. 11 in Xfinity, going from rookie to race winner to championship contender, and was brought up to Cup as the driver of the team’s No. 31 starting this year.

“We’ve seen in the past it takes two or three years for a rookie to gain traction and be competitive every single week in the Cup Series. It definitely takes a second, right? And a lot of good drivers don’t get that opportunity to prove themselves … just knowing that they have my back … it just means the world,” Haley told CBS Sports.

While the team has several other drivers — Including A.J. Allmendinger, who leads the company with 10 victories and serves as Haley’s veteran mentor — Kaulig has a high opinion of Haley’s abilities to the point that he plans to have his young driver and his still-emerging race team reach the summit of NASCAR alongside each other.

“You see young talent and just know and hear through the garage about who’s the up-and-coming drivers. And if you can get a hold of one of those guys when they’re young, then they can be part of your organization and help you grow,” Kaulig explained. “I hope Justin finishes his career here. I talk about that with him all the time.

After building themselves up into a force in the Xfinity Series, the introduction of the Next Gen car made the timing right for Kaulig to expand to two full-time Cup Series teams. And while the team’s Cup operation has gone through some growing pains, there have been some bright spots in the first third of the 2022 season. Allmendinger came a pair of corners away from winning at Circuit of the Americas, and Haley delivered a strong third-place run at Darlington a few weeks ago.

Such results illustrate how advanced Kaulig is for a young race team, and suggests that the arrow is pointing upward in their development. 

“I would imagine in five years that we are competing for championships in the Cup Series, Kaulig said. “We’ll have four cars. If you had to ask me what the future holds, it would be that. … We’ll be one of the contending teams – I don’t want to say dominating teams – but one of the contending teams in the playoffs, to win races, and that’s what we want to do.”