Chris Rice, AJ Allmendinger Reflect on Having Fun, Kaulig Racing Growth & 2023

In 2018, they were the little team that could.

In 2023, they’re the little team that is doing.

When Kaulig Racing first showed up to the NASCAR scene in 2016, most folks probably would’ve never guessed it would become one of the most competitive and successful teams in NASCAR by 2023. In the team’s first two full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series seasons, its first driver Blake Koch earned only five top-10 finishes in both years. Not bad, but that’s certainly not championship material.

On top of the pit box, however, was NASCAR veteran crew chief Chris Rice, and in 2018, he was promoted to team president.

They were never the same.

Since Rice’s promotion, the team has earned 19 Xfinity Series race wins, one NASCAR Cup Series race win and two Xfinity regular-season championships.

How did they get here?

In the case of Rice, it’s likely because of his sunny disposition and a loyal race team. Fans that listen to most NASCAR teams on radio communications will likely find the most serious and often frustrated dialogue in sports. On Kaulig’s radio chatter, however, you may find something that’s more relaxed and sometimes downright hilarious.

“I think NASCAR gets a bad rap a lot,” Rice, who once said he would “show his boobies” after a race at Talladega Superspeedway, told Frontstretch. “We don’t get to hear NFL players on the sidelines. In NASCAR, we’re always serious. I’ve gotten beat up on social media so much about mistakes. ‘How can you still have fun?’

“I mean, what do you want to do? You want to be miserable all the time? You try to have as much fun as you can.”

However, there’s a fine balance between a relaxed working environment and still being productive. Rice has found that balance.

“Do you have to work on your problems and issues? Absolutely,” Rice said. “Why not have a little fun with it? You do that on the radio, and the whole team and the atmosphere is way different. They’ll work really hard for you.

“It’s super hard in competition to think about that. You just think about the bad. You know, we win a race, and I’m immediately thinking about how we are going to win the next one. You don’t even live in the moment.”

But did the optimistic Rice ever, in his wildest dreams in 2018, think that one day the organization he now calls family would become NASCAR Cup Series race winners?

This is the part of an interview where a race team president is supposed to say something like, “Of course I did. I always believed in my team and knew we would succeed.”

However, this isn’t just any race team president. This is the always smiling, joking and very candid Chris Rice.

“No. Because when Ryan Truex got in the car, we didn’t even have a top five,” Rice said. “Matt [Kaulig] and I always said, ‘What’s the 10-year plan? What’s the five-year plan? How are we going to be better? What are we going to do to be better?'”

One thing they did better the very next year was hiring former open-wheel racer, NASCAR veteran and road course racing ace AJ Allmendinger for a limited Xfinity Series schedule. For Rice and Allmendinger, it was a match made in heaven. The cheerful road racer that lost his full-time Cup ride at the end of 2018 adapted well to the jolly team.

“They saved my life, to a certain degree, in the sense of happiness,” Allmendinger said. “This team has done so much for me in the last five years. I have truly enjoyed it. I love it, I think, more and more kind of [as] each year passes.

“They’ve given me opportunities to win a lot of races I didn’t expect to win.”

“Those are the things you look back on in his career, back in Cup racing,” Rice said of Allmendinger. “It was, ‘Hey, don’t make yourself that miserable. Don’t do things to make yourself so miserable.’ What I look at with AJ is you just have to be honest with him, and he has to be honest with himself, and he’s worked on that very hard.”

The Californian has since become the team’s eldest and most accomplished driver by earning Kaulig’s second-ever win in 2019 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and racking up another 12 Xfinity Series wins since, as well as their only Cup race win (Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and regular-season Xfinity championships in both 2021 and 2022. All the while, the driver of the No. 16 has mentored the younger drivers moving within the Kaulig ranks, including last year’s Cup Series championship runner-up Ross Chastain and the 23-year-old he jokingly calls his “son,” Justin Haley.

“I’ve always told Justin [Haley] from day one when we first started being teammates that I’m here for [him] whenever he wants to talk,” Allmendinger said. “It’s not something that I force myself on you to tell you. These are the lessons you should be learning. Part of this sport is you learn as you go, but I’ve always told him that whatever he needs, I’m here. He’s got so much talent and he’s going to do a lot of great things.”

In 2023, Rice and the team decided to have Allmendinger join Haley in his awaited return to full-time Cup Series competition.

“We’re making strides in the right direction,” Allmendinger said. “So that was a big part of why I wanted to go full-time Cup racing again. It was just because I felt like there’s so much potential, and now there’s a lot of work that goes with that.

“We still have a lot of growing to do to be with the Hendrick [Motorsports] and the [Team] Penskes every weekend.”

However, also joining Kaulig in 2023 on the Xfinity side for a limited schedule is the newest Chevrolet driver, two-time Cup champion and complete emotional opposite of Rice and Allmendinger, Kyle Busch.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: Kyle Busch Strikes Back in Xfinity

Busch’s aggressive and passionate racing attitude may not scream “fun” to most people — if anybody at all — but to Rice, Busch will still only make the team better.

“We brought him to make us better,” Rice said. “Because when you get to the Dash 4 Cash races and the final eight races, whoever sits in [the No. 10 car] then needs to have a good notebook that they can get in those cars and run fast, because this car can win a championship.

“We’re probably going to get embarrassed a little bit. We’re probably going to get feelings hurt, which we’re OK with. We just have to work through them and make ourselves better, and Kyle knows that. It’s still a work in progress, and he’s here to help.”

Even with Busch’s help, Allmendinger and Rice will still have some stiff competition with two full-time Cup and three Xfinity cars in 2023. It’ll likely be some of the hardest work and longest hours they’ve worked in their professional racing careers.

But it’ll all be for the sake of continuing to grow the team they call home, and one thing is for sure. They’ll certainly have fun doing it.

“I want everybody to be NASCAR fans,” Rice said. “And to be a NASCAR fan, you need something funny. You need something to have fun with, and if it’s me, I love having fun with it.”

And that likely isn’t going to change anytime soon.

To watch the full interviews, click the YouTube links below.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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