It’s been a career year for Justin Allgaier. His first career top 10 on a road course came at Montreal. His first win came at Bristol in the spring. And he’s by far the leading Nationwide Series regular in the points. If a fan hadn’t been following the Nationwide Series since 2005, it would perhaps be surprising that despite a season with that resume, Allgaier isn’t even an afterthought in the 2010 series title chase.
But what should be surprising for any fan of the series, be they from 2005 or 2010, is that despite the credentials, the 2009 Rookie of the Year is searching for a new ride for the 2011 season.
How could this happen?
The 2008 ARCA champion has proven to be a perfect fit since joining the Penske Racing camp after securing his first national championship. An outfit that has long prided itself on professionalism, with its personnel always seen at the track on race weekends in dress slacks and collared shirts and a leader in Roger Penske affectionately known as “the Captain,” Allgaier was the youngster that brought the organization into full-time Nationwide competition, and with significant corporate backing in Verizon Wireless. Off the track, he’s been nothing short of spectacular, the consummate professional on TV and in dealing with sponsorship responsibilities.
And if there was ever any evidence that Allgaier has taken to Penske’s culture like a fish to water, it came out when asked how he was approaching what may well be his final few races in the No. 12 car.
When asked about how suddenly being in play for 2011 would affect his approach to racing, Allgaier noted that now, like always “it’s about running well and working on my personal skills, how to become a team player, to work with my crew guys better to make our program better.”
Notice something about that comment. It’s as much about developing the off-track skills as running fast on the racetrack. There’s a dedication to personal development, in addition to progressing as a driver, that is hardly ever referenced by younger talents.
And speaking of the Penske Nationwide program, it’s perhaps hard to remember that Penske Racing didn’t have a full-time presence in the series until last year. Now a two-car juggernaut that has given Joe Gibbs Racing a serious challenge for the top spot in the Nationwide Series pecking order, it’s been Allgaier’s work in the No. 12 car that has catapulted Penske to the top of NASCAR’s AAA… and to what will be its first NASCAR championship when Brad Keselowski crosses the finish line at Homestead next month.
“The No. 12 guys got the ball rolling” said Allgaier of just how Penske Racing has managed to build their program to championship caliber in a span of only two years. “I feel like the equipment from last year to this year has improved by leaps and bounds.”
“I tell you,” Allgaier continued, “one thing Roger Penske is good at is putting the right people in the right places. I think everybody [in the organization] has a lot of drive right now.”
And while that drive has both Allgaier’s No. 12 and his teammate’s No. 22 car in the top five in points, it’s not been without its frustrations. For as well as he’s run, teammate Keselowski has run better.
“Brad’s obviously very talented,” said Penske’s senior Nationwide driver, “and putting those two [Kes and Paul Wolfe] together is a very good [combination].”
“If anything, I think our setups have played into their hands,” said Allgaier of the notes from his No. 12 team. “They haven’t necessarily been the same because our driving styles are different, but it’s been frustrating that on some days we can run what they run, and we just can’t seem to make it work. It’s been good to know though that we’ve played a part in them running as well as they are, to know that our whole program is where it needs to be.”
That larger perspective on how big of a role he’s played in what will go down in the record books as Keselowski’s championship carries over further for Allgaier in looking at his sophomore season on the Nationwide tour. “We got great finishes at the beginning,” he recalls, “and we fell off some in the summer months. We just didn’t have the consistency that we needed to, and obviously Brad, Kyle, all these guys are having unbelievable seasons, setting records.”
“For me, I have to take all of that in stride, and know that we’ve accomplished a lot this year. Our qualifying is getting better, our races are getting more consistent. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re doing week in and week out, and I think we’re doing that. But at the same time, it’s frustrating that we’re racing well and still losing points hands over fists to the other guys. That gets frustrating.”
Choose to focus on all the frustration, or all the successes that he’s had in the Nationwide ranks the past few seasons, the reality is this; Allgaier needs a ride for 2011. And with good cars scarce and sponsors even more so, facing the challenge of finding a new home will likely prove to be far stouter a challenge than racing against Kyle Busch and Keselowski has been, both because of the lack of rides, and the standard Allgaier holds himself to as a competitor.
“I think for me, right now, a ride’s a ride,” he stated. “But at the end of the day, I want to be competitive, to know that we’re going to go out there and give 100% and know we’re going to have a shot at winning the race. I’m not a paycheck collector. I do love this sport and I’m all about it, but being able to race and do it the right way is what I’m worried about. No matter if it’s two guys working on a racecar in a garage or 1,000 people working together in a million square foot building, as long as we’re competitive I’ll be happy.”
Until that new ride comes though, happiness may well have to wait.
When asked what his greatest takeaway from his time at Penske Racing would be if Homestead proved to be his last race in the No. 12, Allgaier noted “I’ll take away the fact that… what an opportunity to drive for a guy like Roger Penske. There’s hundreds of thousands of racecar drivers in this country all with the same goal, to be able to land here. It means a lot. It’s a cool opportunity and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to race here.”
That said, when asked, the answer to this question came right out. Unfortunately, for all the performance on and off the racetrack, Allgaier has obviously contemplated that his time at Penske Racing may well be running out.
“I’ll always give Roger the respect and appreciation for giving me my first shot, Verizon and everyone else involved,” said Allgaier.
“[But] it’s going to be tough to move on.”