2016 was supposed to be more of a make-or-break year for Blake Koch. Just over one month prior to the green flag starting the new year in Daytona, it was announced that he would team up with Kaulig Racing for the entire NASCAR XFINITY Series campaign.
The opportunity came as a surprise as the owner of his sponsor, LeafFilter, wanted to go racing. Matt Kaulig, owner of LeafFilter, formed Kaulig Racing, aligning itself with Richard Childress Racing.
Koch, 30, is coming off a season in which he competed in every race that was on the schedule for the first time in his eight-year career in the XFINITY Series.
“[Crew chief] Chris Rice is friends with a lot of guys over there and we formed an alliance that allows us to get cars from them and the ECR engines,” Koch told Speedway Digest at Daytona. “It’s close, and everyone there has been really great to work with and helping us out a ton.”
Rice is a veteran of the sport. He has been the Competition Director at NTS Motorsports, and then became the crew chief that same year in 2014. Prior to that, he was the atop the pit box for RAB Racing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2012.
He has one career win as a crew chief coming back in 2003 with Scott Wimmer in the XFINITY Series.
Before the season started, Koch wasn’t sure what to expect. The team had not even competed in a race, but the expectations were set high. With the Chase, new to the XFINITY Series in 2016, it gives the first-year team the ability to possibly make a run at the championship without winning a race.
However, Koch doesn’t want you to underestimate the team.
“I would say to make the Chase, be top 12 in points by Kentucky and by then, we will be a whole different race team because right now, we are only two months old,” Koch said. “By that point, we will be even better and hopefully we can stay in the Chase.”
LeafFilter has played a big role on Koch’s plans.
Last August, prior to the race at Mid-Ohio, it was announced that they would sponsor him throughout the 2016 season, but for TriStar Motorsports. Kaulig scratched that deal last minute and wanted to start his own race team.
This looked to be a bold move for Kaulig, a graduate of the University of Akron. There was no telling whether or not this would be a success until the season started.
Though it was Daytona, where anything can happen, the team unloaded off the hauler at a competitive pace. In the three practice sessions held on Friday, the day prior to the 300-mile event, the No. 11 car was in the top 10 on the speed chart in two of them.
It got better on Saturday.
For the first time in his career he qualified in the top 10 at Daytona, which he thought was a surprise to the competition.
“I think we were under the radar in the offseason,” Koch said. “But I think now people know we have speed in our cars and Chris Rice has done a good job at doing that.”
Later that day, Koch recorded his first career top-10 finish while coming home with a ninth-place effort.
But the success didn’t stop there.
Currently, the No. 11 team sits 12th in the standings and has been competing in the top 15 just about every weekend.
In four races this year he’s never started worse than 17th and has three top 20 finishes. The only bad finish came at Las Vegas where he finished 26th due to an issue with the fuel pressure.
The main thing is the speed that has come out of the cars put on the racetrack. For someone who hasn’t always competed toward the front in the past it would seem as though the best shot at a first-career victory would be at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. That might not be the case for this team.
“I think everybody has a good shot at winning Daytona and Talladega races, that’s what makes it exciting for the drivers, fans, everybody,” he said. “I think that we have a good program together and I think we’ll be a threat at some of the stand alone races. Chris Rice is extremely smart, so some strategy and fuel mileage races and who knows we might get even faster as the year goes in and be able to have speed.”
This opportunity could be just what the Florida native needs to really put his career on the map. He’s raced since he was a little kid and though he believes this might be the best team he has raced for, he doesn’t know if this is his biggest chance he’s taken in his career.
“Everything that has happened in my career has led to this point,” Koch said. “I would say the best opportunity of my career was the first time I got to drive a racecar because that led to where we are now. The other best opportunity was to drive the LeafFilter car for the first time because I got to meet Matt and LeafFilter. That led to this.”
Koch has gotten off to the best start of his career. He is the highest in the point standings after four races that he’s ever been in his tenure in the XFINITY Series. In 2015, he finished 17th in the championship standings, a career best.
This year looks to be different for Koch. He has speed, something he hasn’t always had. More importantly, he is able to work closely with some of the top teams in the XFINITY Series, Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan and Brandon Jones.
Because of the hard work that Rice and the less than 20 employees did over the off-season and throughout the first month of the season, this team is in a good position moving forward. If Kaulig Racing can avoid problems throughout the summer it could potentially make the Chase in its first year of existence.
That would be something to be proud of.