By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kaulig Racing team owner Matt Kaulig issued an edict during the offseason that he wanted to go “trophy hunting” in 2019 and with three cars in the arsenal for Friday night’s Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway, the hunt finally paid off as the team netted its first NASCAR Xfinity Series win.
Ross Chastain ended the night in Victory Lane driving part-time for the team in its No. 16 entry, adding another win to his resume that has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the past year, while the team’s full-time driver, Justin Haley, came home in second place.
“We shook hands and we said we were going to go take over the world,” Chastain said of the thought process for the 2019 season with Kaulig Racing. “That’s what Matt Kaulig wanted to do with us. He wanted us to go win trophies, go trophy hunt.”
Chastain started the night in fourth place, but early on, he and his Kaulig teammates set the pace and gave notice to the rest of the field that they were going to be the cars to beat as the night played out. All three Kaulig entries led at one point in the race and with the checkered flag in sight, they were in position to settle it amongst themselves.
“Super aggressive,” Chastain said when asked to describe the race from his standpoint. “Almost wrecked down there in (Turn) 1 with Justin. That’s just how you have to be. I told these guys at the beginning of the year, especially after the first Daytona race, seeing how much track position meant, if you want me to race for the win, we may crash on Lap 5 and they were good with it.
“The only thing was don’t crash with your teammate. At least leave somebody out there for Kaulig Racing to go win. Bringing three cars here was unprecedented. We got the No. 16 car in Victory Lane. I mean, it’s incredible.”
The win is the first Xfinity win of the season for Chastain, but he has found just as much success in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driving for Niece Motorsports. Though nights like Friday night are some of the highs, Chastain has also hit rock bottom in that time frame as well.
After winning with Chip Ganassi Racing late in 2018 and signing a deal to race full-time this season, he had the rug pulled out from under him when his sponsorship fell through and he was left without a ride during the offseason. That set of circumstances led him to a part-time deal with Kaulig Racing, which as we all saw on Friday night, played out to its full potential when they captured the checkered flag.
“It’s all a blur, but it starts with the people,” Chastain said. “It’s not just a PR thing that you say, for me, this is what it’s all about. It’s all about the people and the people that got me in this car. Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice for helping put all this together.
“It’s what the Good Lord puts in front of you and He put these people in my path for no reason that any of us saw coming. It’s all for a greater reason and I’m good with whatever He gives us. It’s been the darkest of times, but it’s also been the best times of my life this year.”
While Chastain was busy celebrating in Victory Lane, Justin Haley had no regrets about coming home in second place, electing to be a team player in the closing laps rather than try and go for the win himself.
The runner-up finish comes a year after Haley looked to have his first Xfinity Series win locked up in this very race, only to be penalized for passing below the yellow line and have it taken from his grasp.
“At the end of the day, you just want to be a team player,” said Haley. “The 20 was over there, he was a Toyota, so I knew we needed to get a Chevy to the lead. I probably gave away the win. I probably could have got it, but at the end of the day, I just wanted to make sure a Kaulig car won.
“I could have gone for the win. I could have backed up on AJ or (Christopher) Bell. I’m pretty confident I could have done it, but you never know in a situation like that if Bell could have gotten a better run than me. So, I kind of just fell in line and stuck to the status quo. I really wanted to give Kaulig Racing a win. That was my biggest thing. Our biggest goal was to get Matt Kaulig a win, a pretty new owner in the sport. No regrets, but still a damn good night.”
The team’s third entry, driven by AJ Allmendinger from the pole, crossed the line in third place, but issues in post-race inspection led to a disqualification, dropping him to last in the final running order.
Despite the disqualification, Allmendinger noted how much fun he had in his return to the Xfinity Series – in his usual comedic fashion.
“As much fun as you could have with your ass clenched the whole time, holding on for dear life,” he said. “You know, it was cool, we had Cornerstone Produce Group, the first time they’ve ever been to a race. Kind of a home race for them. We had that Leaf Filter in-car cam, so hopefully I gave them a great shot.
“All I wanted to do with three to go, I got to fifth and I saw my teammates up there and I said ‘All I want to do is get to third.’ I’m willing to take a chance and try it and fall to 10th or wherever I was going to fall to, but I just wanted to make it a 1-2-3.”