Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400 was marred by a couple of scary wrecks, one of which involved David Gilliland and rookie Justin Allgaier, among others.
Shortly before the wreck, the rookie had dropped back in the field a bit on the previous restart because of a broken shifter. Having only been able to use about a half-inch of the shifter, it was more difficult for him to maneuver, despite being given vice grips in an attempt to make it easier. Not too long after, AJ Allmendinger got loose, spun across the track and clipped the back end of the No. 51, shooting Allgaier up the track and directly into Gilliland’s path up by the outside wall in a terrifying wreck that destroyed both cars. Thankfully, both drivers were able to walk away, albeit a little sore.
“I saw the (No.) 47 get turned or turned himself. I don’t know exactly where he ended up, but I saw him coming down the race track. At that point, you really have two options, and I thought we could clear him going across the bottom,” Allgaier said in the garage after being released from the infield care center. “Unfortunately, he probably caught me by six or eight inches on the back bumper and turned us hard right and up in front of traffic. At 200 miles an hour, you’ve got cars coming on both sides. It sucks, especially when we had such a good car all night and running up front.
“Huge testament to everyone back at HScott Motorsports and all the guys at the Hendrick chassis department and the man upstairs. To be able to walk away from a crash like that is absolutely amazing. Not the way you want to end it, but knowing that we had a good car and momentum for next week is always good.”
For Allgaier, it was the third consecutive race that he didn’t get to leave with the results to show for his on-track performance. Going back to Richmond a few weeks ago, the driver of the No. 51 started 31st when qualifying was rained out but made gains throughout the race, before restarting 12th after the final caution. However, hard racing knocked him all the way back to a 21st-place finish, hardly indicative of his performance through the night.
“There’s nothing that can prepare a driver for a restart with 20 laps to go at Richmond in the top 15. Those guys race in the top 15 like they race in the top 5 in the Nationwide Series,” HScott Motorsports owner Harry Scott, Jr. said on Sunday. “I think that’s been an eye opener for everybody, including Justin, about how aggressive they are and how good they are at being aggressive and not tearing up a bunch of equipment.”
The following week at Talladega was another race where Allgaier made gains all day once an overheating problem was diagnosed, running toward the front of the field until late race contact took off their bumper and relegated the rookie to a 27th-place finish.
“The week before in Talladega, we had some duct work that had come loose and we were overheating,” Scott said. “We didn’t know it was the duct work, and as soon as we fixed that, that’s when he drove to the front. He had to drive around the back to stay cool for two-thirds of the race.
Though the No. 51 team has yet to be able to post the finishes their cars have been capable of the last few weeks, they have focused a lot on finishing better than where they started, something that had happened in the three events prior to Kansas.
“There are a lot of positives. I think Justin’s learning curve has been faster than anyone could have expected, making the transition from Nationwide to Cup. The team has gotten a lot better,” Scott said. “When you start almost from scratch, which we did — we had a good infrastructure and good people — when you start to try to build something, it seems easier at first to make some gains if you have low-hanging fruit.
“You try to implement the things that will give you the biggest amount of gain in the shortest amount of time and take up the least amount of resources,” he continued. “We’ve still got some low-hanging fruit left, and from the team perspective, that’s really where you see the improvement. A lot of that is a function of the support we get from Hendrick Motorsports.”
But the question that remains is how the team handles running so well every week without being able to have the numbers in the record books to show for it. After all, in 10 years, someone looking back on this season’s performance will likely judge it as only average — if that — since they’ll only have the starting and finishing positions to refer to. However, right now, it’s a lot easier to think about the small gains.
“What you look at is how we ran within the race. All of our pit stops Saturday were very good, Justin did a great job getting on and off pit road,” Scott mused. “We drove legitimately up inside the top 10. As a team, we know that the cars are getting better, and we know that the equipment is very competitive. All guys have been grinding their guts out and working hard, and you can actually see the spring in their step, now that they’re excited about how competitive we’ve been.
“Everyone else notices too. I get a lot of very nice comments telling us, ‘Congratulations, that was a great car that you had.’ That’s encouraging and that means more than anything. Everybody watches the whole race. They don’t just see where you finished. As long as we’re heading in that direction, I’m happy and frankly, we’re really ahead of where I expected to be. I can’t complain a bit.
Though there are plenty of positives for HScott Motorsports, races where the car comes home with a significant amount of damage are not without their challenges.
“That car is not going to race again. That car is done. The biggest challenge is for us to reset our car schedule. We were going to run that car again at Pocono, I believe,” the owner said. “We’re going to have to do some shuffling around. Luckily, we’ve got enough inventory.
“It is making us consider whether or not we’re going to try to qualify for the All Star Race next week. Is it worth risking another car for a non points event? We had intended to go and get some practice, hopefully race in and be competitive and potentially have a chance at the big prize. You look at a risk-reward scenario. That will be the first topic of discussion.”
But despite the bad luck he’s faced, Allgaier remains positive about the season thus far and maintains his hope for the remainder of the year.
“I’ve got a great team behind me and I’m really proud of these guys,” the driver admitted. “I know we’ll get one somewhere. I know we’ll be in the top 10 here shortly.”
And he couldn’t be more right about that. After all, you must first walk before you can run, especially in NASCAR when you’re a small team trying to make it in a world built for the powerhouse organizations.