Tasked with replacing a seven-time NASCAR champion on two days’ notice, Justin Allgaier sits in new and rarified territory.
Shortly before Jimmie Johnson’s Friday reveal of a positive COVID-19 test was made public, Allgaier had already gotten the call, learning that his driving duties — after weeks of dutifully waiting as a standby driver for Hendrick Motorsports — would be needed in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For a veteran who has proven himself in JR Motorsports’ Xfinity Series equipment but toiled for two-plus seasons in a substandard Cup Series ride years ago, Allgaier’s role as late-hour fill-in for a top-notch seat might present something of a showcase opportunity. Instead, the 34-year-old shoe is approaching the interim position with a level head.
“My standpoint is this: Opportunity or not does not supersede the need to go out there and to do the job at hand,” Allgaier said after a seventh-place finish in Saturday’s Xfinity prelude at the Brickyard. “A hundred percent is what I have to offer, that’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow. 101, 110, trying to be a hero? There’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. For me, this isn’t what my plan is. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity that it can to run at its maximum potential.
“Now in my mind, I believe that that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve got to do a really good job because there’s plenty of drivers that feel that their program is really good and they have a great opportunity to go on and win this race. So for me, I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in a bad position, I don’t do things that Jimmie wouldn’t do, number one first and foremost, but number two, being somebody different in that car, everybody in the field’s going to know that. There’s going to be some that respect that, and there’s going to be some that are probably going to take advantage of that. You’re just going to have to know who you’re racing around and put yourself in the best position you can.”
The No. 48 team had drawn the fourth starting spot for Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 (4 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but Allgaier will drop to the rear of the field during pace laps because of the driver change. It will mark his first big-league start since a substitute drive for an ailing Michael Annett at Bristol in 2016. Though it’s been nearly four years since his last Cup Series appearance, Allgaier has been active with Chevrolet through working on the automaker’s simulator and driving a wheel-force car in Cup test sessions.
Cliff Daniels, No. 48 crew chief, said that Hendrick Motorsports has maintained a secondary roster of alternates for every at-track role — from driver to crew chief to road-crew personnel — since NASCAR’s return to racing in May after the initial spike of the coronavirus pandemic. So when Johnson’s positive test came Friday, the choice of Allgaier as an interim driver had been decided weeks before. The timing just so happened that Allgaier’s number was called at the site of one of his biggest wins in 2018.
“Obviously, Justin has a lot of history in Cup cars and at the Speedway, so we have a lot of confidence in him,” Daniels said. “And, our group has been building every week to make sure we can execute and perform at a high level. Even though it’s a very unfortunate circumstance for us all, we still have to do our part to make Ally proud and to make Hendrick Motorsports proud and to do honor to Jimmie and the No. 48 car just to have a good weekend. So, that’s our plan.”
Allgaier said he had exchanged texts with Johnson in the hours since his positive test. Though he said he could sense Johnson’s disappointment at missing what might have been his last Indy start — another hitch in what’s been a muddled, final Cup Series season — Allgaier said he was convinced of his ability to win races upon his return.
Johnson reciprocated the confidence in Allgaier’s talent during a Saturday morning teleconference with the media.
“I’ve been friends with Justin for a lot of years and raced against him,” Johnson said. “With him being at JRM and in the family, if you will, at Hendrick Motorsports, he’s been a great resource for me to get information from him on how a Saturday goes. He’s just been a friend and a resource for many years. I’m highly confident in his ability and excited for him to get in there and wheel that thing.”
Allgaier said that part of his preparation for standby duty each week has been to keep handy a set of ergonomic equipment — pedal fittings and seat moldings — so that he could easily step into any Hendrick ride in relief. Allgaier said that the No. 48 crew unloaded the car Friday to make sure his gear was inside; he’ll hop in Sunday morning to make sure everything fits comfortably before that afternoon’s 400-miler.
Whatever result emerges from one of the highest-profile substitute roles in recent NASCAR memory, Allgaier said it was an honor just to be considered for the part. Carrying a car number that one of stock-car racing’s greats made famous, he said, only adds to the prestige.
“I can’t even begin to describe it, to be honest with you,” Allgaier says. “Any of the cars at HMS, it doesn’t matter — any of the four cars are definitely an honor to drive and be a part of that program. But the 48 being the iconic number that it is, Jimmie winning seven championships, winning here four times, it’s just the guy that Jimmie is and the respect that Jimmie has in this sport, you top that all off with the fact that he’s the only driver at HMS that’s run the 48 at HMS since he started his career there. I remember his very first Cup Series start in the 48. I was there, I watched it, I cheered him on. I think that, for me, has been one of the biggest parts of that.”