Nuts for Nationwide · Bryan Davis Keith · Saturday February 12, 2011
“There’s really no way to change anything more than we’ve changed,” says Justin Allgaier of his new home at Turner Motorsports. Formerly the Braun Racing organization, Allgaier is coming into the fold during an offseason that’s seen the team switching to the new Nationwide car, a new manufacturer in Chevrolet, a new engine provider in Hendrick Motorsports, and, in his case, a sponsor new to NASCAR racing. It’s a great story of a Nationwide regular getting a fantastic opportunity.
Only thing is, Allgaier’s not just any Nationwide regular; under this season’s new points system, he’s the defending Series champ. In 2010, he was also the only such driver to win an NNS race on an oval, propelling Penske support into his first career victory at Bristol last victory. And yet, despite all that he still found himself out of a sponsor and a ride when the checkered flag flew at Miami last fall. So while his new home at Turner Motorsports may lack the history and stature of his former home at Penske Racing, what the youngster has gained after a tumultuous 2010 in experience and perspective may prove enough to make title defense a realistic venture.
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“You go from a 500,000 square foot to 100,000 square foot shop, you’re cutting a lot of space out,” remarks Allgaier of his offseason move. “You’re losing the Cup side of things, the IndyCar side of things, there’s a bit of culture shock in that regard.”
That said, even before taking the green flag for the first time in his No. 31 team, Allgaier has already noticed similarities between his new and old.
“One of the things I’ve liked is Mr. Turner likes to look good at the race track, and he likes his equipment to look good at the race track,” says Allgaier of his new owner. “He and Roger Penske share that same philosophy, and I feel like the guys here at the shop, the employees at the track, the cars, that is all very similar in the way they expect things to be maintained, and that’s part of what I love. I love going to the race track and looking good. When your cars and your team and your equipment all look good, you feel better about it, [that you’re] going to run better.”
But Allgaier isn’t necessarily looking for a new Penske Racing to call home. Because for all the gratitude that Allgaier has expressed towards the team, giving him his break after winning the 2008 ARCA championship, he’s also not afraid to admit that his last season in that camp took a toll on him as a driver and a person.
“I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t forced out [at Penske],” said Allgaier in contradiction to the words I used in framing a question about last season. “I was basically given an ultimatum that you can stay, but there isn’t going to be anything for you to drive.”
It was an agonizing conclusion to a season that for all its accomplishments wasn’t without its share of frustration. Though Allgaier won the unofficial Nationwide Series championship, his teammate Brad Keselowski ran away with the real trophy, posting a series record for top 5s and multiple wins while doing it. And every time that the No. 22 car was running up front, ahead of the No. 12, Allgaier saw the fruits of his team’s labor outrunning… his team.
“At the beginning of 2010, when they announced Brad was going to run, there were basically no employees until the middle of January,” recalls Allgaier of the formation of Penske’s second NNS team. “So a lot of the Nationwide guys from my team basically built all the cars, they filled their toolboxes, they got their itinerary lined up, they got everything ready to go for them. They obviously had a lot of work to do to get things where they wanted them, but a lot of the major headaches were already taken care of.”
But despite having his team prepare the equipment, the logistics, so much that allowed Keselowski to enjoy the dominating season that he did, it didn’t always translate into results for the No. 12 team… and Allgaier.
Said the driver, “The one thing that was frustrating last year was how different Brad and I were in terms of driving style. It would have been great if we had had a similar style, because obviously they were fast week in and week out. But we were just so different, there were some weeks we were just OK and there were some weeks we were better than they were. We just weren’t quite to the level they were at.”
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Speaking of levels, Allgaier feels that the perception surrounding his move to Turner is that of a step down. That’s not the way he sees it.
“At Penske, pretty much everyone that was over there, other than Parker [Kligerman], [they] were all Cup guys,” he explained. “And with their schedules being the way they are, it’s hard to interact with them as much as you’d like, especially as a young guy like myself trying to make it in this sport. So to be able to come over here and have two other guys full-time who are Nationwide-only guys that I get along with really well, and two Truck-only guys that I get along with really well…for me honestly, I see it as a step up.”
His optimism isn’t without a foundation. Turner’s move to Chevrolet brought with it Hendrick horsepower under the hood. His first interactions with new crew chief Jimmy Elledge have gone well (“He’s been right on the page with me and where I wanted to be at,” says Allgaier of his new head wrench). And in terms of gelling with teammates, the new kid on the block is not only looking forward to having Nationwide-only regulars alongside, but has a head start on developing chemistry.
“Jason [Leffler] and I have been friends for many, many years,” asserts Allgaier. “We both have open-wheel racing in our blood, and you know, Reed [Sorenson] and I used to race quarter midgets together when I was six, seven, eight years old, so it’s cool to have that bond. I can remember racing against him and how good of competition he was back then. It’s still the same way today.”
“Plus on the truck side… James and myself are really good friends. Over New Year’s, I went to Costa Rica with him on vacation. I fit in really, really well here, and I feel like we’ve got the equipment to go out and run well. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
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Turner Motorsports has the pieces in place. The equipment is solid. The motors are stout. And there is a bevy of experience and talent behind the wheel. But just as last year, where Allgaier and company were resigned to winning an unofficial title while the team they helped build ran away with the crown, there is again a shadow over the championship he’ll soon be pursuing with his No. 31 team when the series tackles Daytona next week. And who better to explain than the driver himself:
“I love what NASCAR’s doing with the points. However, and there’s a big however in there; as racers, we all want to win the points legitimately. We all want to be the guy that goes out there and wins 15 races a year and sets the world on fire and does everything right.”
“We all kind of know that’s not the standard practice and that the Cup guys are very talented. They’re in Cup for a reason. [That said,] I think all of us are going to be disappointed if we are to win the driver’s championship and we got beat out by a Kyle Busch or a Carl Edwards or a Brad Keselowski. At the same time, a championship’s a championship. That’s what it takes to be in this sport for a long time.”
Thanks to sponsorship from a small-town Illinois company in Brandt for a small-town Illinois driver in Allgaier, the driver that was the face of the Nationwide Series in 2010 for all the right reasons is back to defend his unofficial title, to make it official this time around. Whatever light one casts on the circumstances surrounding the series in 2011, that’s a positive development.
What that title he’s defending and pursuing is worth, well … that development remains to be seen.
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