AJ Allmendinger is a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver again. Kaulig Racing announced the move on Wednesday morning that he’ll join Justin Haley as a part of their 2-car program in NASCAR’s premiere series in 2023.
That brought up a question as of why now? Why after the last few years of bliss to rejoin the Cup Series to what Allmendinger has admitted took a toll on him? When Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice first called Allmendinger to see if he’d like to join their program, Allmendinger had 2 rules – no Cup racing and no superspeedway’s. At the time, he was an announcer for NBC Sports specializing in sports car racing.
So what led to him 3 years later being okay with superspeedway’s and 36 points paying Cup races?
It’s the family atmosphere Kaulig has made for Allmendinger.
“When I first went to Kaulig Racing to compete part-time in 2019 and 2020, I remember how I felt on the weekends that I wasn’t racing and how much I missed it. Competing full-time is a mentally tough battle at times. No matter how much work you put in as a driver, there’s a chance you will not achieve success. For a while, I think I lost that competitive drive to be the best. Kaulig Racing helped me find that again. I now feel more competitive than ever and believe there is more success to be earned as a team.”
Allmendinger has won on the Cup level with them at Indy. He’s just won on a superspeedway at Talladega. However, Rice was initially nervous after how the start of their working relationship went but is so proud to see where it has grown today.
“I first called AJ (Allmendinger) in 2019 to ask if he would run a couple Xfinity Series races for us,” said Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing. “He agreed to do five, and he was disqualified in the first two races. Although it was two, tough results, AJ saw what we were trying to build here at Kaulig Racing, and better yet, he believed in what we were building. After the success we’ve had together since then, we think the next step is for him to help us do the same with our young, Cup Series team.”
2022 marked Kaulig Racing’s first, full season in the NCS with Justin Haley in the team’s No. 31 entry, as well as the No. 16 entry shared by Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson.
“I’ve always told Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice that I will do whatever they think is best for the company, and as long as I am helping the team, I will keep doing it,” continued Allmendinger. “I love working with Justin (Haley) as well and being able to see his growth. I think we have more growth to do together, and it makes returning to the Cup Series full-time with Kaulig Racing an easy decision.”
Allmendinger A Legitimate Championship Contender
You also now have to look at Allmendinger being a legitimate championship contender too. There’s 5 regular season road course races now compared to just 2 in his last season, and he could win at any one of the 5 next year. Kaulig is also proven to have fast cars on ovals too for which there’s no reason to think that not only could Allmendinger be a playoff driver, he could make a serious run through the postseason. If he can escape the opening round, the ROVAL is back in the Round of 12 to which Allmendinger is 3-for-5 at.
Smith’s Move A Reflection Of Busch’s Move To RCR
As far as the Chandler Smith signing, it’s a direct reflection of Allmendinger moving up and Kyle Busch’s signing with RCR. With Toyota losing KBM and an uncertain future for the Truck program, where does that leave Smith? Would JGR have been an option in Xfinity? If so, what about eventually moving up to Cup? Kaulig gives him a similar opportunity but a brighter future as Allmendinger isn’t going to be around in Cup for too long. You get the sense now that he’s keeping the 16 seat in Cup warm for when Smith is ready in a few years.
That’s why Smith said he had options still with JGR but chose his best path was forward with Kaulig.
Another Big Loss For Toyota
Toyota has always had limited seats to move up through the ranks. They had Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series with 2 full time seats and a part-time role there, then 3-4 seats at JGR in the Xfinity Series to 4 Cup rides.
However, those Cup rides were filled with champions, so it was growing increasingly harder to retain talented drivers to come through that program. Smith is another casualty of that and of the Busch move to RCR.
He’ll join a list of former Toyota developmental drivers like Kyle Larson, William Byron, Erik Jones, Noah Gragson, Daniel Suarez, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland and others to come through the KBM ranks but no longer with Toyota ties.
Who’s The NXS Immediate Future?
It looks like the top drivers this season are all graduating up to the Cup level. Ty Gibbs is likely in the 18. Gragson moves to the 42. Allmendinger now to the 16 in Cup too. They currently sit 1-2-3 in points and have combined to have won 16 of the 28 races this season including 5 straight.
So who’s next?
The 2019 Xfinity Series season saw 24 of the 33 races won by either Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe or Austin Cindric.
Custer, Reddick and Bell each moved up to the Cup ranks a year later. Briscoe and Cindric picked up their slack. They won 15 of the 33 races all by themselves. Justin Haley and Noah Gragson picked up where Briscoe and Cindric did from 2019 in reaching victory lane 5 times between the duo.
Like the year prior, Briscoe moved up. Cindric remained last year and between he, Haley and Gragson, they won 9 times. Harrison Burton won 4 times.
2021 saw Cindric and Haley move up full-time in the Cup Series. 2022 allowed Gragson to shine. It also promoted Ty Gibbs in the process. Gragson and Gibbs have combined to have won 11 of the 26 races this year. Next year, both are likely set to graduate up to the Cup Series too. We know Gragson will with Petty GMS Racing. Gibbs is more than likely to replace Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Toyota with Joe Gibbs Racing.
So who’s next?
Custer, Reddick, Bell, Briscoe, Cindric, Haley, Gragson, Burton and now Gibbs will all be Cup Series drivers in 2023.
Who’s the next one to step up?
The thing is, as the youth movement has grown so heavily in Cup, there’s not a lot of places to eventually move up into.
Team Penske has all 3 of their drivers locked up for the long run. They have Burton stashed away at the Wood Brothers. Hendrick Motorsports has 3 of their 4 cars locked down until at least 2026 with Alex Bowman set for a contract extension next season.
Does Stewart-Haas Racing or JGR have room?
We know Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are entering contract years in 2023. Aric Almirola now has a few years left. SHR also has Ryan Preece sitting there but with Chase Briscoe and Custer, I don’t see more than 1 more seat left for them. JGR has Bell and Gibbs set with 2 more spots to groom.
Which is why I wonder if more veterans shine in 2023 in NASCAR’s version of AAA.
Justin Allgaier turned 36 this past June. He’s a 19-time Xfinity Series winner. What about Josh Berry who will be 32 in a month and is back for a 2nd full time season in 2023. He’s won 4 races in the past 2 seasons.
Brandon Jones moves over to JRM next year in the 9 seat and will turn 26 near next year’s Speedweeks. 2023 will be his 8th season already in the series.
I can see Austin Hill back for a 2nd year with RCR. He’s 28 and will be 29 next April. Does Daniel Hemric return? I can see him back in the 11 but they’re working on funding still. He’ll be 32 in January. Chandler Smith is only 20 but takes over for Allmendinger in the 16. Landon Cassill returns to the 10 seat.
The tide may have turned in the series to more veterans.
Granted, you still have Sam Mayer (19 years old), Sheldon Creed (24 years old) and Riley Herbst (23 years old) who can contend but none of these 3 have ever won an Xfinity Series race before.
What about Sammy Smith? He just turned 18. Does Toyota move him up in to an Xfinity Series seat since they’re losing KBM? That could also open a door for Corey Heim who is also 20 and could factor into this. John Hunter Nemechek is 25 and is a part of Toyota’s future too.
That’s why I can see next year being heavily dominated by veterans in this series where it hasn’t recently been so.
Cassill Back Too, Hemric’s Plans Still Being Worked Out
Another “fine print” part of the announcement was that Landon Cassill will return to the No. 10 Chevrolet for a 2nd full-time season with the organization. Daniel Hemric wasn’t part of the announcement but both sides note that they’d like to continue working together. It’s all down to sealing up sponsorship right now on his car.