NASCAR Cup Series teams and drivers might be learning something new with every track the Next Gen visits, but Justin Haley hasn’t been fazed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as confident in a race car as I do right now,” Haley said. “And that’s just a testament to Kaulig Racing and what we’re doing and our speed. We have speed week in and week out; I’m trying to gain trust in the Cup Series against my competitors and obviously, that’s hard to do.
“I’m just comparing myself to my teammates that come and go and the other rookies, per se, of similar amounts of starts. I feel good. And I feel like as long as we keep our heads in line, we can have a good shot at making the playoffs.”
Haley is 23rd in the standings, having dropped a couple of spots after a rough weekend at Richmond Raceway. Although Haley recovered from serving a pass-through penalty at the start of the race due to three inspection failures, his No. 31 Chevrolet was ill-handling all afternoon. Then an issue on pit road ultimately relegated Haley to a 29th-place finish.
Richmond was Haley’s worst finish of the season. After coming out with back-to-back 23rd-place efforts at Daytona and Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, Haley and his team ripped off three consecutive top-20 finishes.
Kaulig Racing dabbled in the Cup Series the last two seasons, making one start in 2020 and nine last year. Haley is the team’s primary driver in its first full year of competition.
“We’re above expectations right now,” Haley said of his team. “We’re sitting pretty good in points. Obviously, that can change in a heartbeat, but I’m really proud of everything we’ve done at Kaulig Racing. We’ve had a lot of crew members come and go, and we’re just trying to find a stable crowd of crew members to work on our car, and obviously not having Trent (Owens, crew chief) for a few weeks, we’ve had Chris (Rice) step in. He’s done a great job.”
Owens has one weekend left on his four-race suspension for a wheel coming off the car at Fontana. The team appealed the penalty and lost. Haley is also without his primary jackman and front tire changer.
“We’ve had speed at times, we’ve just got the small things to work out as a new team,” Haley said. “Sim time, pit road, stuff like that needs to be cleaned up. I can do a little bit better job. These short practice sessions have been hard and it’s really put an emphasis on sim time, which has helped tremendously.
“Chevrolet has a new simulator that they built last year, and it is leaps and bounds above anything I’ve ever driven, so it’s been pretty spot on. It was spot on for COTA (pictured above) — we had speed at COTA and (at Richmond).
“I think we’re good. At the beginning of the season, I think we’re ahead of where we thought we would be.”
Haley was confident coming into a new season, although the new team and car were unproven.
“We went to L.A. (for the Busch Light Clash) and I was just hoping to make the race,” said Haley, “and then I go and run like I did at L.A. and it kind of proved to everyone in the garage that it doesn’t really matter how much or how little you have, you can do anything you want as long as you get it right. We’ve had our ups and downs. It’s just part of it.
“I don’t really know if we set an expectation. Chris always tells me where he thinks I’m going to finish, but that’s just Chris being like, oh yeah, you’re going to finish seventh or last or whatever. So, I think we’re ahead. We’re leaps and bounds ahead. We’ve just got to stay ahead.”