Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Following the race last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, rookie Justin Allgaier, driver of the No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet SS for HScott Motorsports sat down with David for an extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript of their chat.
Justin Allgaier: Hey, just to let you know I’m on dad duty today, so I might have to tend to Harper as this goes on.
David Smith: I’m good with it, and actually that’s a good starting point. You’re a relatively new father (daughter Harper was born last August), and there’s an adage in racing that suggests you lose a little of your aggression whenever a child enters the picture. Do you feel as if you have experienced this?
I think the best example of that is Jimmie Johnson. I don’t see that guy slowing down too much after having kids. For me, the way I look at is that I feel my drive and my hunger got even more focused now that I have a daughter. I’m still trying to make my way in the sport and I want to be here for a long time. I want her to grow up knowing her dad is a race car driver, and a successful one.
Focusing on aggression, in recent years, you’ve had some rather colorful post-race chats with the likes of Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. When another race car driver points to you and says ‘Justin Allgaier races me hard’ or ‘is very aggressive,’ what, in your opinion, prompts them to say that?
I won’t deny that there are times when I’m more aggressive than most, but I wouldn’t say you hear my name associated with driving against someone and wrecking them or retaliating or anything like that. When I was younger I was in a lot of 20- and 25-lap features where you fought for every position. Obviously my job is to go out and win races. I’m not going to say that there aren't times when I should probably give up a spot or two, but at the same time, I would say the people that have a problem with me have raced me a certain way in the past. I tend to race people the same way that they race me. Kurt and I had our differences, but now we’re on the same page and we race each other really well. Danica and I had our discussion earlier this year, and I feel like we race each other well now. A lot of times these conversations end with going back on the track and racing each other with respect.
I track passing statistics, and you’re what is called a ‘positive value passer,’ which is to say you’re passing more efficiently than expected for a driver with your average running position (a plus-3.27 percent surplus passing value through Martinsville). Are you finding that it’s as easy to pass in your neighborhood of the running order in the Cup Series as it was in the NASCAR Nationwide Series?
We started out this year with our share of problems — bad luck, or whatever you want to call it — that hindered us from running where we should be running. When we get into the race, I don’t always feel like we start where we should be and if we have a good race and we’re running well, I feel like we can pass to where we should be. In the Nationwide Series we were qualifying around 12th and finishing somewhere around eighth to 10th. I wasn’t moving around a whole lot and I felt like I raced where I should have been. There were times when we had good races and won or finished second or third and there were times we had bad races and we finished 15th to 20th. I definitely feel like we have more to show on the Cup side — and we’ll get there eventually — to where we’re starting and finishing better.
What’s been the primary difference for you between racing in the Nationwide Series and racing in the Cup Series?
I think the biggest difference is that in the Nationwide Series, there are 15 to 20 good cars and if you have a bad day you finish 20th. And that’s frustrating, right? But on the Cup side, if you have a bad day you finish 41st. It’s crazy … (at Martinsville) we finished 23rd and that was the hardest-fought 23rd-place finish of my entire career. We were running better than that at one point and got moved out of the way. The competition level and the quality of cars are absolutely insane to me.
What about the competition level – Restarts? Pitting? Closing? – is harder than outside observers think it would be?
Probably qualifying. You get out there and your first lap on the racetrack is usually going to be your fastest. When you qualify, you’re on such an edge. Once the race starts, you can kind of calm down. Restarts tend to get a little bit crazy, but to me, qualifying is the thing that’s harder than it looks, just based on how hard you have to go.
NASCAR Mailbox:Are rivalries all they're cracked up to be?
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are all former Dirt Sprint Car and Midget racers, as are you. They also happen to be adept at road course racing. You have a road course win in the Nationwide Series (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2012) to your credit. Is there causation behind this correlation? Is there something about road courses that just clicks with you dirt kids? Or is having a dirt background a giant coincidence?
I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, in dirt you learn car control that you just don’t find developing on asphalt. The other thing is that in dirt racing you’re constantly searching for a line that allows you to go faster. It’s entering fast, slowing down in the middle and accelerating off the corner or carrying speed through the center; whatever the track calls for, you do it. On asphalt, a lot of times especially in oval racing, you’re going to want to carry center corner speed. That’s the goal, to carry center corner speed. On a road course, that’s not always the key. I feel like dirt racers tend to search around a lot more and maybe that’s why it clicks easier.
You took part in the Roush Fenway Racing gong show tryout (in 2005) and you weren’t picked as the winner. You also were with Team Penske and parted ways with them after two years. By making it to the Cup Series, do you feel a little bit of redemption over teams and decision makers that might not have thought of you as Cup material?
What I’ve felt lately is satisfaction in myself. Back then, I thought I could do it and had the talent to do it. But there are a lot of people that think they have the talent do it, and probably do. I’m very blessed in the situations I’ve been put in and it’s taken every one of those opportunities to get me to where I am now. Had I not been a part of those, there’s no way I would have made it to the Cup Series. I understand that this sport is a business probably more than I want to. I don’t blame anybody for what happened to me. I’m glad everything worked out and that I’m still blessed enough to be in the sport.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.