CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger's NASCAR career will come full circle in 2023 when he returns to the Cup Series full time to drive for Kaulig Racing.
Allmendinger retired after the 2018 season but was lured back into competition by his close friends Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice. The duo was attempting to build Kaulig Racing into a legitimate team that could move to NASCAR's top series and coaxed Allmendinger into helping.
He started with five Xfinity Series races in 2019, and Kaulig persuaded Allmendinger to increase his schedule to 11 races the next year. By 2021, as Kaulig was preparing to move up to the Cup Series, Allmendinger ran five Cup races for the team and the full Xfinity Series schedule.
Kaulig Racing is now a two-car Cup team with Justin Haley as its full-time driver; its second car is used for “trophy hunting” and Allmendinger already has driven it 13 times this season.
Now, fresh off a win last week at Talladega Superspeedway that pushed Allmendinger into the next round of the Xfinity Series playoffs, the 40-year-old will return to NASCAR's top level next year in the No. 16 Chevrolet.
Haley will remain in the No. 31, and Chandler Smith, a Truck Series driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports, was named Wednesday to replace Allmendinger in Kaulig's Xfinity Series program.
“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family. There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”
Rice, the general manager of Kaulig, said the journey with Allmendinger has been amazing considering its rough start.
“I first called AJ in 2019 to ask if he would run a couple Xfinity Series races for us. He agreed to do five, and he was disqualified in the first two races. Although it was two tough results, AJ saw what we were trying to build here at Kaulig Racing, and better yet, he believed in what we were building," Rice said.
"After the success we’ve had together since then, we think the next step is for him to help us do the same with our young, Cup Series team.”
Allmendinger has won the last two Xfinity Series regular-season championships and went into the finale last year with a shot at the title. As his role with Kaulig grew, so did the results sheet.
Allmendinger scored Kaulig's second career win at the inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course in 2019, then won two of 11 races in 2020. He added five Xfinity wins in 2021 and won the Cup Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in Kaulig's seventh Cup start.
Allmendinger next races Saturday at Charlotte, where he is 3 for 3 on its road course and the current Xfinity Series championship leader.
“When I first went to Kaulig Racing to compete part time in 2019 and 2020, I remember how I felt on the weekends that I wasn’t racing and how much I missed it," Allmendinger said. "Competing full time is a mentally tough battle at times. No matter how much work you put in as a driver, there’s a chance you will not achieve success.
"For a while, I think I lost that competitive drive to be the best. Kaulig Racing helped me find that again. I now feel more competitive than ever and believe there is more success to be earned as a team.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports