Long: Can surprise win at Indy lead to happily ever after for Kaulig Racing?
INDIANAPOLIS — It can be debated, and was this week, if Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Cup race is a crown jewel event since the series moved to the track’s road course for the first time Sunday instead of racing on the historic oval.
Regardless of what side one favors, Indy remains rich in motorsports history. Just as Daytona International Speedway is.
Both tracks saw surprise Cup winners in a year that Hendrick Motorsports has dominated: Michael McDowell for Front Row Motorsports in the Daytona 500 and AJ Allmendinger for Kaulig Racing’s part-time Cup effort at Indy.
As Allmendinger, car owner Matt Kaulig and general manager Chris Rice celebrated their surprise victory - Allmendinger admitted he felt he had a seventh- to 10th-place car but then everything went his way in overtime - they looked at this as a beginning. Kaulig Racing will field full-time Cup entries next year while continuing to field cars in the Xfinity Series.
It was with the same optimism and excitement that Front Row Motorsports celebrated after McDowell’s win in February.
“I’m sure, hopefully, some other opportunities will come along,” car owner Bob Jenkins said the day after McDowell’s win. “It is now time to go build some cars and try to run better and take our chances in the playoffs.”
Three weeks until the playoffs begin, talk this weekend in the garage centered on if 23XI Racing would purchase a charter - or both - from Front Row Motorsports.
When 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin was asked Saturday if he had a deal going with Front Row, he said: “I don’t have any deals with anyone right now.”
Maybe nothing comes of the situation. A spokesperson for Front Row Motorsports told NBC Sports that “everything is status quo at FRM” without elaboration.
But clearly, there is the possibility that the Daytona 500-winning team could face a downsizing or restructuring for next season.
Maybe it’s a sign of how tough NASCAR’s premier series can be even when a team wins the sport’s premier race.
The Indy road course event, though, won’t be confused with the Daytona 500.
“We’re trying to force sports car racing into these fans,” Hamlin said after he was turned by Chase Briscoe while leading with less than two laps left. “Although the finish was a crash-fest, I’m sure everyone will love it.
“It’s just stupid. It’s a complete circus at the end of the race. You just roll the dice and hope you don’t get crashed.”
What is one man’s garbage is another’s paradise.
Allmendinger understands the allure of this speedway, having led the Indianapolis 500 and driven for car owner Roger Penske. Allmendinger said walking from Gasoline Alley to the track with Penske before the 2013 Indy 500 remains a special memory.
“I don’t mean it when I say this, but it was like, ‘I’m walking with God right now. Like this is what God feels like. I’m walking with Roger Penske, Indy 500, and he’s calling my race, and I’m driving for Roger Penske.’
“That moment will always stand out.”
Sunday’s also will be special. While Allmendinger cried when close friend Mike Shank was the winning car owner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 with Helio Castroneves, Allmendinger did not shed tears for his win Sunday. Excitement quashed tears.
“Just give him a minute and a couple more beers,” Rice said.
“Because Matt (Kaulig) would make fun of me if I started crying is the biggest thing,” Allmendinger quipped.
But Allmendinger said his second career Cup win holds special significance.
“I love what we’re sitting here being able to do right now,” he said. “But for me, I’m like, ‘This is awesome for me,’ but for them, they deserve it because (Kaulig) puts so much of his own money into it. (Rice) puts every … dying moment into this race team and all the men and women.
“I love it for myself, but I always say I drive really for a couple of people. I drive for myself because it’s pure enjoyment, challenging myself, and it’s really pushing myself for all the men and women at that race team because they’re the ones putting their heart and soul and, really, my life in their hands.
“That’s why I enjoy it so much, really.”
So was Rice.
“To win a Cup race and to sit in an amazing venue like this and think about it, I don’t even know what to say,” he said.
“I told somebody down there just a minute ago, they said, ‘Just soak it all in,’ and I said, ‘I can’t. I don’t even know what to do.’ I still have cold chills.”
Those chills were still with him several minutes later as he talked excitedly about winning at Indianapolis.
This is a team worth watching. Kaulig entered the sport as a sponsor, found he could operate a team for not much more, and built an organization that has become among the prominent Xfinity operations.
When Kaulig Racing debuted in the Xfinity Series in 2016, the team finished 16th in car owner points. Five years later, nearly half the cars that finished ahead of Kaulig then no longer exist. That includes cars from Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.
While Trackhouse Racing could be the disrupter in the sport and much is expected of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan’s role as co-owner, Kaulig Racing could be a sleeping giant in Cup among new teams.
Kaulig is at the track most weekends. He guides his team with the same mantra that helped his LeafFilter North, Inc. business go from his home to having more than 100 locations in the U.S. and Canada - and be expected to do $1.5 billion in sales this year.
“There’s a quote that I have that I really live by, and I do this in business and even in the business of racing: ‘Either you continue to grow or you begin to die,’” Kaulig told NBC Sports earlier this year. “That’s up on the wall for everybody to see in the race shop.
“You want to keep getting better, and you want to keep growing.”
Sunday, Kaulig Racing took a step forward. What it does with the opportunity could determine its path.