Justin Allgaier made his Sprint Cup Series debut with HScott Motorsports at Chicagoland Speedway last September, a race where he finished 27th, one lap down. Fast forward to this season, and he’s running full time for the Rookie of the Year honors alongside a full crop of young drivers. In 11 starts this season, the driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet has a best finish of 17th at Bristol. Allgaier sat down with Frontstretch.com’s Beth Lunkenheimer at Kansas Speedway over the weekend to talk about his season thus far, being a rookie in the Cup Series, being a father and much more.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: Your racing career has been built from a young age. Has the passion to be a racer always been there?
Justin Allgaier: You know, it’s funny. When I got the opportunity to race my first race, I was five, and at the time my family was in racing, so I had been to a lot of races before then. But I don’t think it ever really clicked until I got the first go at it, and I fell in love with it. Immediately I was stoked. And I had tried a lot of other sports. My dad was big on finding whatever I was passionate about, whether it was another sport or something else in my life. He wanted to make sure that I didn’t race because my family was into racing. I played baseball and soccer. I tried basketball, but being vertically challenged, it doesn’t work out so well. I played all kinds of different sports, and racing was always the one that no matter what I felt at home, I felt comfortable and it was easy—not necessarily easy but it just came more naturally. I just enjoyed it.
Lunkenheimer: Back in 2008, you were the one that broke Frank Kimmel’s eight year championship streak in ARCA. How important was that to you.
Allgaier: It was huge. I can remember a lot of races, and the turning point of my career was probably Frank and I getting into it in Du Quoin, Illinois, and that was when I realized that I probably was driving over my head and doing some things that I shouldn’t be doing. Frank’s always been the type that if you ask him for help and you give him respect on the race track, he’ll help you in a lot of ways. I never understood that until after I took advantage of it, and then it was so cool and Frank and I had a good relationship after it. It was neat to break his record, I’m not gonna lie. To have a guy that was going for his ninth and tenth in a row, to be able to stop that and just barely beat him was super cool. It was definitely a proud moment in my career.
Lunkenheimer: BRANDT has been a really supportive sponsor, a lot more so than several other sponsors in the sport, especially today. How important is that continuity with your funding?
Allgaier: I think the one thing for me is that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around and be a part of some great sponsors in my racing career. I can tell you that the Brandts, from the CEO Rick all the way down to the last employee to the customers, to everybody involved, its really amazing to see their passion and their drive to want to be the best at whatever it is that they do. To have them be behind the racing program and to help push me into being able to make my Cup debut was huge. But the other part of it that I don’t think a lot of people realize is they have a great group of customers. They have a great group of people that are a part of what they do, and the nucleus of all of that is Springfield, Illinois. Their main headquarters is in Springfield—BRANDT was actually founded in Pleasant Plains, which is about five minutes outside of Springfield. I grew up about five minutes outside of Springfield on the other side of town, so to have two small town kids that grew up that are now trying to make it in our respective areas, that central Illinois backing behind all of it is something that people, unless you’ve ever had something like that, don’t understand.
Lunkenheimer: Moving over to the Cup Series, your numbers in qualifying have been steadily improving, moving out of the first round and actually getting into the second round. What do you attribute that to?
Allgaier: I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, a big part of it is Steve Addington and all these guys at HScott Motorsports. When we started all of this process last fall and when Harry Scott started HScott Motorsports last fall, we weren’t really sure where we could be. We knew we had a main goal, but until you get to that spot, you never know what challenges or hurdles you’re going to go through. We started out the year and we didn’t feel like we were bad. It just seemed like the little details—the new qualifying procedure—we needed to fine tune on them a little bit. We were really good when the race came around, but the issue with the Cup Series is that if you qualify 38th or 40th, it’s hard to race your way to 20th or 25th. Once we started qualifying better, the racing became easier. It just seemed like one piece was feeding into another and it was just getting better and better. We still have a long way to go, but I’m really proud of where these guys have come to and where we came from.
Lunkenheimer: What’s been the most important contributor to you guys gelling as a team? I know it’s not going to come together overnight.
Allgaier: I think that the coolest part is that even though the equipment is different and a lot of the people are different, there’s still a good group of guys that were on the team last year when it was Phoenix Racing that are still coming to the race track. I think out of the eight or ten crew guys that we have at the race track, five to six of them are guys that had been coming before, and I think all but one of the guys at the shop were there before. I think that’s helped because you’ve got a core nucleus that’s worked together, and they all know each other and they work well together. The other part is that you add good people to them—Steve Addington has been awesome as a leader of all of the guys. PK, Pierre Kuettel, the car chief had been at Roush the last number of years, was crew chief with Carl Edwards when they won the championship in the Nationwide Series—very very smart, very very driven when it comes to being at the race track. He’s super particular about how he does things, and that’s good, especially as engineering oriented as our racing has become. It comes down to thousandths of an inch, so having someone that’s very detail-oriented is good to lead our guys. And then just the guys—the guys that we need to bring in or that we added positions for—are strong in their area and fit well with everybody. In general, we’ve put good people with who was already there and it’s working out well.
Lunkenheimer: How involved are you in the technical aspect of setting up the cars?
Allgaier: I understand a lot of it. I try and know a general idea of where we’re at. At the same time, though, the engineers and Steve—I let them figure out what works best. It seems like with these cars nowadays, we have to hit that sweet spot where it reacts, and some of the things that I think I want in a race car that may have worked in the past don’t necessarily work right now. I’m still trying to figure out what the feel is that I want out of the lack of ride height rule. I get a debrief of where we’re at, but I try not to get too hands-on until I really feel like I’ve wrapped my head around where everything is at. We’ve got a great group of guys that do that, and I don’t want to screw that up, that’s for sure.
Lunkenheimer: What’s been the biggest challenge being a rookie in the Cup Series?
Allgaier: Hands down, the schedule. You get so used to traveling a certain way—the Nationwide Series was always Friday night race, you were home Friday night. Saturday night race, you were home Saturday night. You always had Sunday off. It just seemed a lot easier, and now we leave the same day or earlier, and you’re there an extra day or two. We’ve had plenty of rain-outs this season, which has not helped in that regard at all either. The other part is just competition. There are days that you race every lap like it’s the last lap of the Daytona 500, and you give it 110% and you still finish 35th and have no idea why. In the Nationwide Series, if you have a bad day or a mediocre day, you might finish 20th or 25th, and it definitely seems like there are some extremely talented teams around here.
Lunkenheimer: You’ve had quite a few really great runs and then the finishes didn’t show it. How do you keep your head up to get through that?
Allgaier: The biggest thing is that we have to keep the peaks and valleys. When you have a good day, you have to work hard and say you’re capable of better, and when you have those bad days, you think about how great those good days were. It’s tough, especially when you know you’ve run well. Last week at Talladega, we were battling for the lead with 15 or 20 to go and finished 27th, which doesn’t really tell the true story that we were running near tenth coming to the white and got crashed. That was frustrating. At Darlington, we had a loose wheel when we were having a really good night and made a pit stop and got screwed up. It’s the little things that are frustrating, but you just have to look at them like every day that I’m here and can get behind the wheel is a blessing. There’s no right for me to be here. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be here tomorrow. You have to push it at 110% and give it everything you have, and if you do that and you come up short, you just dig in a little bit deeper the next time and hope you get the opportunity the next time.
Lunkenheimer: There has been a lot of focus on improving your finishing position over where you started in qualifying. How do you focus on that while not letting it distract you while you’re racing?
Allgaier: You have to look at all of it relatively. I feel like we’ve raced better than we’ve qualified pretty much every week, and that’s encouraging. One of the things that was really funny was when I left the Nationwide Series, a lot of people said these longer races, you’re not going to know what to do. I was nervous when I started out. Some of these races are long and I was worried about maintaining. Once we got into races, I started feeling like 500 wasn’t long enough and wanted to keep going. Let’s run 750 miles, let’s run 1,000 miles. I feel really good, and I feel better than I’ve ever felt inside the car. Long races tend to suit me better for whatever reason. I think that’s been a big part of what I’ve enjoyed.
Lunkenheimer: Whats the most important lesson you’ve learned in your NASCARcareer?
Allgaier: Over the whole career, it’s definitely been patience. You always think you know the best route, you know the best line, you know the best this or that. I’ve put myself in positions that I look back on and wonder how I got there or why I did it. A lot of it comes down to patience. Having the skill or knowledge to say I need to slow down here has been my biggest challenge. I’m still learning at it every day and still trying to get better with it. It’s hard—that’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with.
Lunkenheimer: What’s one thing you wish fans knew?
Allgaier: I think the biggest thing is how much effort and hard work goes into all of this. People don’t realize a lot of times the hours that not only myself, but especially these crew guys put into it. A lot of people feel like we show up the race track, we go out and we race, we go home and that’s it. The amount of time that these guys are away from their families and dedicate their lives to the stuff I get the glory for. I go out there and get to race for the checkered, go to victory lane and do all the interviews, but really the amount of time and effort they put into it is unbelievable.
Lunkenheimer: How has Harper changed your outlook on life in general?
Author’s Note: With the simple mention of his daughter’s name, Justin’s eyes lit up and there was a certain sparkle that hadn’t been there before.
Allgaier: It’s funny—I said this in an interview I did a couple weeks ago. One of the things that’s crazy is my daughter just turned nine months [Thursday]. She doesn’t care if I finish first, last, if I have a job. It doesn’t matter. We had a really good race at Bristol and finished 17th. I went back to the motorhome and she was not in a good mood and wanted nothing to do with dad and I was crushed. Somewhere else, we got in a crash and when I went back to the motorhome, she was happy as can be and she wanted to give me nothing but hugs. It was like it didn’t matter that I had just crashed—it was all in perspective. It’s definitely changed me as a person and made me realize and respect what I’m able to accomplish. It also makes me want to run better because when my daughter turns five, or ten or 15, I want her to know that her dad was a successful race car driver, not just this guy that made it and didn’t do anything with it. That’s been the biggest thing for me.
Lunkenheimer: What’s the best part about being a dad?
Allgaier: There are so many things I can say, but I think the coolest part is sitting there and I’ll be holding her. Just all at once, she’ll just lean down, put her head on me and give me a hug. I wasn’t sure with the racing schedule—my parents were a little older, they were 40 when they had me—and I thought maybe that would be the direction that I would go, being a little older when I had kids and be a little settled down. I’m glad I didn’t wait that long—I’m disappointed that we didn’t have a child earlier because I do enjoy it. It’s been the greatest thing that could ever happen to me. The racing is great and I love what I do, but really family is the most important thing.
Lunkenheimer: What’s the craziest autograph request you’ve ever gotten?
Allgaier: It’s a prosthetic leg. The guy walked up to an autograph session and asked if I would sign his leg and I said sure. He reached down and popped his leg off and put it on the table, and it had his tennis shoe and everything. I looked at him like ‘are you sure you want me to sign this?’ He looked at me like I was crazy for thinking it was weird for pulling his leg off and setting it on the table. It was cool—the guy was super nice about it, but it definitely was a little bit awkward. If somebody were to come up with a prosthesis and have it in their hand already, it would be one thing, but to watch him pull it off in front of me was pretty impressive.