When the XFINITY Series returns to action this Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, Blake Koch will begin the race somewhere he is unaccustomed to … the front.
Coming off of a ninth-place finish at Kansas two weeks ago, Koch sits a career-high third in the championship standings with 500 miles remaining until the final four are determined. Fortunately for Kaulig Racing, those are two of the better tracks for the No. 11 team.
Though Koch’s career-best finish of 21st came at Texas in 2015, he is certain that this time around it will be better. As for Phoenix, the No. 11 team finished 16th in the desert during the spring after qualifying 12th. But if he can make it through the next two races among the top 4 in the standings, all eyes might linger over to the underdog story.
“I feel like the final three tracks are probably my best tracks,” Koch told Frontstretch. “My rookie year, my best qualifying and finishing positions were at these three tracks. I believe that if we are in the final four or even if we are not in the final four, we have a shot to win at Homestead.”
Koch is winding up the end of his first season with Kaulig Racing, a first-year team. After narrowly making it into the Chase, the No. 11 team has beat the odds and surprised the garage when it comes to advancing.
The first year team is owned by Matt Kaulig with full-time sponsorship from his company, LeafFilter Gutter Protection. With a team made up of 16 guys in Kernersville, N.C., Koch believes that this race team can keep on keeping on if the cards fall their way.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” Koch said. “We knew that we would be fast and we set some goals at the beginning of the year, one of which was to finish in the top 15 every week. The other was to make the Chase. To advance to the second round of the Chase was beyond our expectations, but we knew that we could do it. We have really good people at Kaulig Racing.”
Through the first 30 races of 2016, Koch has set some milestones of his own. At the season-opening race in Daytona, he recorded his first career top-10 finish. Since then, he has racked up three other top-10 finishes with an average finish of 17.2, better than only Ryan Sieg of the original 12 Chase drivers.
Koch credits a lot of his professional success to Kaulig, someone he believes has revamped his career.
“The biggest strength is the team owner we have,” Koch said. “He’s such a great motivator and doesn’t put any pressure on myself or Chris Rice or any of the guys. His biggest order for us is to make sure that we go and have fun. I can’t thank Matt Kaulig for keeping my career around and changing my life. That guy is straight from God.”
Teams making mistakes has been a focal point of the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase. In the four races, Koch has finished between ninth and 14th, while other drivers have finished in the 20s and even 30s, keeping them from advancing to the second round.
While others make mistakes, Koch is zoned in on his race team and how Kaulig Racing can be better and that starts from the head man, Chris Rice. This year the NASCAR veteran has taken on a new role enlisted as the General Manager and Competition Director at the race shop. Though the duo have worked together in the past for RAB Racing in 2013, 2016 has been a big stride on each individual, allowing them to be close friends on and off the track.
“He is so competitive,” Koch elaborated. “He wants to win every practice, sit on the pole and win every race. During the week, we set goals of ‘this is where we should be’ and we’re doing a good job, but I can be running in eighth and he can be fired up because we’re not winning. He pushes us and pushes me to that next level and he’s smart.”
Though Koch is sitting five points above the cutoff line, he is sitting ahead of some tough competitions. Erik Jones, four-time winner in the XFINITY Series this year is tied with Justin Allgaier for the final transfer position, both of whom drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and JR Motorsports.
Arguably, those two organizations have been the strongest teams all season long, winning 22 of the 30 races combined in 2016. Over half of those wins have come by Cup Series regulars, but Koch knows that it’s going to be an uphill battle to stay in front of those two teams.
“We’re going to implement them [changes in setup] at Texas and I think that we will be able to hang right in there with JR Motorsports,” Koch said. “We probably won’t be quite as good as JGR, but I think that we can step it up and hang with JR Motorsports. Then when we go to Phoenix, anything can happen. Its short track racing, so a lot of wrecks and a lot of aggressive driving.”
Koch noted that making it to the finish line and competing every lap is mandatory in order to advance. In order to do so he knows it will be pivotal to not crash, something he takes pride in. This season, the No. 11 car has three DNFs, two were due to crashes, including at Texas in April, finishing 34th.
The rejuvenated 31-year-old is in his first year in a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. He believes the alliance with RCR has come a long way since the beginning of the year, but is does not automatically lead to results.
“It’s not like we’re benefiting more because we are in the Chase now,” he said. “We’ve been benefiting from it all year long and it’s helped us get up to speed quickly. There are more people we can lean on.”
It has taken Koch until his fifth full-time seasons to see the results pay off. But he is also being realistic with Kaulig Racing and knows that in order to win the team needs to run toward the front more often. Until then, the goals have been reestablished to consistently running in the top 10 in order to advance on in the Chase.
“That’s hard to say because RCR isn’t even competing for wins right now,” Koch said. “It’s really rough. We’re not that far off of putting ourselves into position to win. But how far are we from leading every lap and winning the race, quite a bit. I believe in my race team. I believe in RCR and ECR. I believe that we and they will get it figured out and I would say sometime next year we will be competing for
Kaulig Racing is the only one car team remaining in the Chase. There are two JGR, JR Motorsports and Roush Fenway cars in the final eight. Brendan Gaughan is the only soul left for RCR, but has teammates in the field. Koch does not and he is viewed as the Cinderella story of the XFINITY Series playoffs.
Currently, Koch has a 22-point advantage over Gaughan and is 23 points to the good of Darrell Wallace, Jr., meaning he likely will have to beat two teams in order to make it to Homestead. It might be hard, but the team is up for the challenge.
“I feel like even if I wasn’t an underdog and with a team that has been around for two decades people would still root for me because I have worked so hard at this and been so dedicated and had so many lows in this sport,” Koch said. “I feel like a lot of people would root for me anyways even if we weren’t an underdog story. It’s cool that we are an underdog, but it’s not like we are an underfunded race team. We are a smaller race team, but we have plenty of money and resources.”
Because Kaulig Racing was not formed until after the New Year, Koch can’t wait for 2017. It was announced in mid-September that he would be back with the team next year with LeafFilter Gutter Protection. He expects the team to continue on a direct path toward a championship for years to come.
“We’re already cutting our cars apart and getting them ready for next year,” Koch said with excitement. “I think people will expect us to be better. Our goal this year was to finish in the top 15 every race and make the Chase and I think next year our goals will be to finish in the top 10 every week and make the Chase. Those will be tough goals, but I think those will be our goals.”
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