Most NASCAR fans were surprised to receive the news update in the middle of summer that Justin Haley had opted to end his relationship with Kaulig Racing and join Rick Ware Racing following the conclusion of the 2023 Cup Series season.
Haley had been with Kaulig Racing since 2019, going back to his Xfinity Series days, and he was the team's first ever full-time Cup Series driver in 2022. He recorded four top five finishes with the team in 2022 and 2023, including a runner-up result in the inaugural Chicago street race just weeks before the shocking announcement.
Who wants to give that up to join a team whose chartered cars have finished outside of the top 33 (of 36) in the owner standings in consecutive seasons?
NASCAR technically has the right to repossess one of Rick Ware Racing's charters. Their two cars have finished in 34th and 35th place in the owner standings in each of the last two years, and one of them has recorded three straight bottom three finishes.
Making matters worse for Rick Ware's team is the fact that the 36th place team of Live Fast Motorsports recently sold their charter. So now Rick Ware Racing are theoretically the odds-on favorites to take the bottom two spots in the owner standings, not just two of the bottom three.
Sure, Haley may not have had the success he wanted at Kaulig Racing, finishing in 22nd and 26th place in the standings in his two full seasons with the team.
But again, why join Rick Ware Racing? All things considered, it appears to be a long-term gamble.
And it's one that could pay off in a big way for Justin Haley's NASCAR Cup Series career.
Joining Rick Ware Racing puts Haley in the Ford camp. Given the team's recent technical alliance with RFK Racing, coupled with their use of Roush Yates Engines, does this put him in a prime position to move to RFK Racing as Brad Keselowski's replacement once Keselowski retires and shifts his focus solely to team ownership?
Anybody and everybody knows that Rick Ware Racing are a backmarker team. So if Haley is able to get the most out of his equipment on a consistent basis -- and perhaps get them back into the top 33 in the owner standings -- while under the watchful eye of some big-name executives at Ford Performance, you'd have to think he is under consideration for a big-time ride at some point down the road.
Just look at John Hunter Nemechek. Nemechek gave up his Cup Series ride with Front Row Motorsports after the 2020 season, realigned with Toyota, dropped down to the Truck Series, worked his way up to the Xfinity Series, and now worked his way back to the Cup Series for 2024 with Legacy Motor Club.
It's a long-term gamble that may not have looked smart at the time, but it paid off in a big way a few years down the road. All it takes it patience -- and, of course, execution.
If Haley can stay patient and execute over the next couple of seasons, perhaps he'll end up in a much better position than he ever would have if he had opted to remain with Kaulig Racing.