Kaulig Racing Just Made a Risky Decision on Justin Haley
Justin Haley will be back to a two-series schedule in 2023 as he returns to a part-time role in the Xfinity Series, which could affect the progress he has made over the past two years in the Cup Series.
Kaulig Racing announced recently that Haley is scheduled to make multiple starts in its No. 10 Xfinity Series car in place of its 2022 full-time driver Landon Cassill after Voyager Digital, one of the primary sponsors for that car a year ago, filed for bankruptcy in July.
Cassill had a merely decent season for Kaulig Racing a year ago. He went winless and finished 13th in the points standings, so Haley shouldn’t have much added pressure in his starts, which include the season opener on February 18 at Daytona International Speedway.
Still, the increased workload could detract from his progress in the Cup Series.
Justin Haley made notable Cup Series progress in 2022
Haley, 23, ran the entire Cup Series schedule for the first time a season ago. He finished 22nd in the point standings but also recorded his first three top-five finishes since his rain-shortened win in the July 2018 race at Daytona, and he did so at some of the sport’s most demanding tracks.
Haley ran third in the spring race at Darlington Raceway and third again in the fall race at Texas Motor Speedway. His last top-five came at the Charlotte Roval when he brought the No. 31 car across the finish line in fifth.
He made those improvements with a schedule that allowed him to focus his efforts entirely on the Cup Series, aside from one Xfinity Series start in August at Daytona.
The year prior, Haley ran a combined 63 races between the Cup and Xfinity series. He posted only two top-10s in the Cup Series while driving the No. 77 car for Spire Motorsports but was a force on the Xfinity Series side.
He spent much of the season sixth or higher in the points standings and won the August race at Daytona to secure his spot in the playoffs. He ultimately finished the season sixth after a brake failure in the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway ended his shot to reach the Championship 4 for a second straight year even though he tied for second in the series with 24 top-10 results.
Haley’s occasional trips back to the Xfinity Series might not be a detriment to his Cup Series efforts. Many drivers throughout the history of the sport have raced in both series, especially before NASCAR implemented a cap in 2018 (initially seven races, now five) for Cup Series drivers to race at the lower level each season.
Drivers would run Xfinity Series or Truck Series races on the same weekend as their Cup Series races in order to have more time on track and gain experience in a competitive setting.
The Next Gen car has increased differences between Cup and Xfinity Series cars
However, the new Next Gen car model NASCAR introduced in the Cup Series for the 2022 season has changed that dynamic. The Cup and Xfinity series cars were similar up until last year. Now, the Next Gen car is significantly different from the older-style car the Xfinity Series still runs.
The Next Gen car has a different steering system, a different shifting pattern, a different rear suspension setup, different tires, and aerodynamic features that make the car react differently than an Xfinity Series car would in similar situations.
Not surprisingly, only three full-time Cup Series drivers raced in the maximum five Xfinity Series events a year ago. And many of those events were at road courses where the benefit of learning the course tends to outweigh the differences in handling between the cars.
The two primary 2022 Xfinity Series championship contenders, Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson, also found it difficult to adapt to the Next Gen car while they ran full-time in the Xfinity Series. The competition is, of course, more intense in the Cup Series, but Gibbs and Gragson had average finishes of 22.9 and 23.1, respectively, in their 33 combined Cup Series starts in 2022.
Kaulig has not announced the rest of Haley’s schedule for his Xfinity Series duties in the upcoming season, so perhaps it can select races that will be as beneficial as possible to his Cup Series efforts.
If that happens, this late addition to Haley’s 2023 season might help him hasten his progress in the Cup Series. If not, the supposed need for Kaulig to have a driver that will draw sponsorship for one of its Xfinity Series teams could end up inhibiting the efforts of a driver who has shown the potential for a breakout season in the Cup Series in the near future.