LONG POND, Pa. — When Rick Ware Racing announced on Thursday that it had signed Justin Haley for the 2024 NASCAR season and beyond, it seemed like a step back for the driver on the surface level.
Haley, 24, has spent the majority of his NASCAR career with Kaulig Racing. In three full-time Xfinity Series season, the Indiana native won four times on superspeedways. The team bumped Haley up to the Cup Series full time in 2022 as its lone full-time driver last year where he’s picked up nine top-10 finishes in the last 56 races.
Haley stated he made the jump to Rick Ware Racing believing it would give him longevity in NASCAR. Throughout his career, he hasn’t had a plethora of sponsors, as Matt Kaulig’s LeafFilter Gutter Protection company has been the anchor sponsor for Haley over the past five seasons.
By not being a driver that comes with a multitude of sponsors, Haley felt it was best to go somewhere that wanted him — as a driver.
“I think for Matt and Kaulig Racing with where they are, he’s a businessman and needs to make business decisions,” Haley said. “I think we were close to doing a deal and a probable option. Felt like I had a few deals and Rick kept coming and calling and gave me a good deal.”
Because of RWR’s alliance with RFK Racing, it swayed Haley into believing the move had upside. Haley said that Brad Keselowski, co-owner of RFK Racing and Steve Newmark, president of RFK, were convincing in their meetings. RWR stages its cars at RFK’s race shop.
But it all came down to where Haley thought he could have some runway.
“I believe in Rick and what he was able to do,” Haley said. “I raced [Cole] Custer last week for 20th It’s just a process.
“I get on the surface it doesn’t look like the best move, but come three, five years with the charter agreement, TV agreement and the political uncertainty of the election being next year, there’s a lot more to it from the sport side of it and I have to protect myself.”
Haley said that Ware wanted to sign him to a lifetime contract, but he had to keep “backpedaling.” He said that when he spoke to Kaulig and Rice, they both assured him they wanted to stay together, but currently, it wasn’t feasible as the team was looking to find additional partners. And with Haley having none lined up, it was time to look in a different direction.
“We’ve had LeafFilter Gutter Protection for so long, and they’ve done a lot of races and been big supporters of Justin Haley and still are,” Rice said. “The door wasn’t closed. It wasn’t like anybody got fired or anything like that. It was just we both had to make a different direction and move in a different direction and looking at things for different partners and other avenues. I think him making his move was because of us telling him that.
“We’re a business, just like everyone else. To have partners is very key to us. I think now as the sport evolves, having partners is more and more valuable.”
Rice assured that the move was mutual. He said that there’s been some chatter going around internally since the beginning of the year about the direction of the No. 31 car, but heated up over the last two-and-a-half months.
“Our plan is to be all set with our Cup stuff by August 15,” Rice stated. “It will be up to the partners and the guys that’s driving it of when they want to do it, but our goal is to be done with that.”
Haley admitted that the timing of his announcement to RWR felt odd. But in order to get a headstart on 2023, it had to come out soon.
“To get sponsors and to sell a certain car, you have to release that,” Haley noted. “We had to put it out there that I was making the transition to RWR and we could start to sell that sponsorship. If you are trying to look for sponsors and Rick is trying to look for sponsors to make the business side of the sport go around, but you can’t sell anything because you don’t have anything signed, it’s impossible.
“It was important for us to release that to get all of our sponsors signed and ready for next year. It wasn’t the best – I want to do the best for Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice; they’ve been good to me for a long time. For me personally and selfishly, we had to release it.”
Haley has 16 weeks left in a Kaulig Racing uniform, first. Entering Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 at Pocono, Haley still has a legitimate shot of making the postseason, ranking 21st on the playoff grid, just 46 points below the cutline.
And when the season finale comes at Phoenix Raceway and it’s time to move on, Rice will look back fondly of Haley’s time with the team.
“We love Justin,” Rice said. “Justin has done a good job for us, won a lot of races for us. We’re going to miss him, but he’s still part of the Kaulig family. … Happy for Justin to continue his tenure in Cup racing, and you never know, down the road he might be back with us.”