Self-admittedly, Justin Haley is an introvert. But this year, he’s letting his talking be done on the racetrack.
Haley, 22, is back at Kaulig Racing for a third full season to chase the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, something he came oh, so close to in 2020. All the while, he’s become the primary driver of Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet in the Cup Series.
Compared to Haley‘s first two years in Xfinity, he believes Kaulig has upped its game, bringing some of the fastest cars to the racetrack. Unfortunately for the No. 11 team, it‘s the lone Kaulig car that hasn’t visited victory lane through the opening nine races of the season.
But that’s no cause for concern.
“This is the most speed Kaulig Racing has ever brought into a season,” Haley recently told Jayski.com. “We have unbelievable speed in these cars. These cars aren‘t even the same as they were last year.”
That bodes well for Haley, as he won a trio of races in 2020, all coming at superspeedways. And despite leading just 19 laps thus far this season, he has an average finish of 12.8, dampened by two DNFs in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway and crashing on the final lap at Phoenix Raceway.
Still, Haley sits sixth in the championship points, within four points of his Kaulig teammates, AJ Allmendinger and Jeb Burton.
Compared to the rest of the field, the No. 11 car has the third best average running position in the series at 8.2. He falls a tick behind Austin Cindric (6.2) and Daniel Hemric (7.7), who sit first and second in the championship standings, respectively.
Quite simply, Haley believes his time is coming.
“We have a lot of speed, so knowing the next race is an opportunity to turn around that luck,” Haley said. “We‘re night and day better than we were last year.”
But Haley didn’t know until late in the 2020 season — after scoring those three wins — that he would be returning to Kaulig for the 2021 campaign. He was weighing all of his options, knowing the Cup Series wasn’t going to the Next Gen car until 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Haley said he couldn’t resist the opportunity that team owner Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice (team president) gave him to return to Kaulig for a third season.
At the same time, Spire Motorsports reached out to Haley early in the year to see if he’d be available for select races this season to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet. What started as a five-race deal quickly evolved to 10, and will now lead to the majority of the season.
“I could see him in the rest of them to be perfectly honest,” TJ Puchyr, co-owner of Spire Motorsports said. “We‘re going to run him as much as we can, as we keep trying to gain momentum and build this group. We‘re trying to work out all the bugs as we grow into 2022.”
Since Spire Motorsports formed ahead of the 2019 season, Haley has been linked to the team. In just his third Cup start, he was victorious, as the No. 77 car was ahead of the field when NASCAR couldn’t get the race restarted due to rain and lightning at Daytona.
Despite the victory on July 4 weekend, Haley didn’t run another Cup race in 2019. Last year, he competed in a pair of Cup races, though just one for Spire, finishing 11th at Talladega Superspeedway in October.
But instead of having a plethora of drivers fill the seat of the No. 77 car this year, Spire wanted stability, thus why they’re leaning on Haley as their homegrown guy.
Spire is also trying to give Haley experience as to what the competition level is like at the Cup level.
“For what we‘re trying to do, I think it‘s the best,” Puchyr said. “We‘re trying to get him a head start, up to speed, so hopefully he keeps building and ends up in a Cup car one day full time. That‘s the goal.
“I think he‘s as good as anybody not in the Cup Series on a weekly basis. I think it‘s a good fit for us. He‘s earned it and I think he deserves that shot.”
For Haley, the 550 horsepower package has been a struggle. He compared that style of Cup racing to the Truck Series, in which he won three races during the 2018 season for GMS Racing en route to his Championship 4 run with GMS Racing.
Not believing he can pick up many bad habits from the Gen 6 car to the Next Gen, he said, “A racecar is a racecar to a racer, either way we‘re going to race it and adapt to it.”
But like Spire, he’s also preparing himself for what’s to come in his future, should he get the opportunity to go Cup racing.
“The biggest thing I‘m taking away from Cup this year is the longer races, getting myself mentally and physically prepared for that and green flag pit stops,” Haley said. “I get a chance to learn them by doing four or five in a Cup race which we don‘t really do in an Xfinity race. If we do have an Xfinity race I feel like I‘m that much better because I‘ve been doing them in the Cup car lately. Just feedback. It doesn’t matter the car you‘re driving you‘re getting seat time.
“It‘s been a tremendous help to drive that [No.] 77 car for myself. I think it‘s really showing in the early parts of these Xfinity races with no practice.”
Similarly, Rice echoes Haley‘s thoughts, believing overall he‘ll be a better racecar driver with more experience.
“The more laps you can run, the better you will be,” Rice said. “I think with him running all the laps he can, especially at a place like Darlington [Raceway] where we will go back later this year, he will understand the characteristics of the race track more. Hopefully he will understand how much harder he can go in a Xfinity car after driving the Cup car.”
Meanwhile, Puchyr stated the way the No. 77 car is setup, it’s expected to run somewhere between 27th and 30th. Knowing that, Haley’s primary objective is to log as many laps as he can and keep the fenders on the car.
Thus far, it’s been a success.
“It‘s an A-plus,” Puchyr said of Haley’s performance. “We‘re super happy with everything that he‘s done. He‘s doing exactly what‘s asked of him.”
For 2021, the team has purposefully been built around Haley. Kevin Bellicourt, who worked with Haley in 2017 and 2018 at GMS, is serving as crew chief. Many of the mechanics have also worked with the Indiana native in the past.
All the while, Spire checks in with Kaulig Racing management to make sure they’re content with Haley running the No. 77 car weekly. It’s something that will have to be revisited over the next few months, as Haley gears up for the playoffs.
“The Xfinity car is his primary focus,” Puchyr added. “We want to be careful with that, and we‘re talking to [Matt] Kaulig and Chris Rice. We want to make sure that stays the focus.”
As for Haley’s future following the 2021 season, he’s looking to move up to the Cup Series. Though not knowing if anyone is ever truly ready to make that jump, he believes 2022 would be the right time, whether with Spire or even Kaulig, who has confirmed it will field a full-time Cup entry next year.
“I would say that‘s the direction I would like to be heading,” Haley stated of moving to Cup. “I would be very blessed to go to Cup next year and get some opportunities. The Cup races are doing nothing but helping my Xfinity races.
“I‘m one of those guys that would just love to be behind an organization for the next 10, 15, 20 years and just stay there forever in an ideal world. I feel like there‘s some good opportunities. If it came down to it, I would have to play my cards. But I don‘t even know what my cards are yet. The poker game hasn‘t even started for me.”
Knowing that the No. 7 car will be piloted by Corey LaJoie for a second season in 2022, Spire does have a seat open in the No. 77 car. But the team is hoping Haley, who is a Spire Management client, will be part of their team.
“We‘ve just got to keep building this thing as we continue to build the sponsorship and the revenue and build on the performance,” Puchyr said. “There‘s times that I think Justin deserves to be in a better spot with a better team. I‘m not knocking us or our guys or anything we‘re doing at Spire, but we know where we are in that garage. Depending upon where he takes this thing, we want to do what‘s best for everybody in those situations.”
In 10 Cup starts this season, Haley has an average finish of 29.4.