By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A day removed from the sad and alarming news of Jimmie Johnson and his wife Chandra testing positive for COVID-19, the race must go on without the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion for the first time since Loudon in November 2001.
Filling in the prestigious role for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier of JR Motorsports, looking to make the absolute most out of driving the No. 48 Ally Financial Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 after getting the call from Hendrick Motorsports to fill in.
“I was honored when they called and even ask if I would be that guy to sit there and have equipment ready to go. I was honored when they asked me to do that,” said Allgaier during Saturday evening’s video conference. “With the protocols what they had in place and the things that they’ve done, well all of us have done in the sport. It’s been really impressive what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far.”
The 160-lap race will not only mark his first Cup start since Bristol in August 2016 when he had to fill in for an ailing Michael Annett, it’ll be the first points race a driver not named Johnson to pilot the No. 48 since Trevor Boys did at Pocono back on June 13, 1993.
Allgaier mentioned joking with his wife Ashley about sitting there and not having a big opportunity to showcase what he can do in a competitive ride. This is due in large part that the 11-time Xfinity Series winner never had a big break on the Cup level as he only has a single top-10 finish in 76 previous starts, all with HScott Motorsports. That came at the spring Bristol race in 2015 when he scored an eighth place finish.
“If I don’t do it. The first week I tell them, ‘I don’t want to sit there.’ Somebody will have to be out and would’ve missed on that opportunity,” said Allgaier.
There’s also a lot at steak because 2020 is Johnson’s final season in Cup. Therefore, the coveted No. 48 Chevy will be vacant with several drivers are hungry and rumored to be the seven-time champ’s successor.
Knowing this, Allgaier understands he must have an impressive run and convince everyone he could amount into something at HMS. More so, when recent record shows part-time drivers making the most out of their stints as it led to bigger opportunities in NASCAR.
The best example being Alex Bowman in 2016 when he filled in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Allgaier’s car owner in Xfinity) for 10 races. Three top-10s and a Phoenix pole later, Bowman become the full-time driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet after Dale Jr. retired in 2017 and won two Cup races since.
That in mind, Allgaier will start at the rear of the field but remains comfortable with the major task at hand because of the team he’ll be driving.
“I look at the other drivers that kind of had filling roles in the past, they’ve all done a great job with it. Especially, Hendrick Motorsports. Those are really good guys on putting plans in place to make the drivers comfortable,” said Allgaier.
“They make them fast and can jump into that race car and be as fast as they need to be. That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re filling for somebody else. You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and get them the best finish that you can give them.
“When you’re able to that and be comfortable, it makes a big difference. That’s what’s been the best part of all of this for me at this time.”
Johnson spoke about Allgaier Saturday morning about how incredible he’s been on resourcing information following the Xfinity Series races.
“I’ve been friends with Justin for a lot of years and raced against him. With him being at JRM and in the family, if you will, at Hendrick Motorsports, he’s been a great resource for me to get information from him on how a Saturday goes,” said Johnson. “He’s just been a friend and a resource for many years. I’m highly confident in his ability and excited to him to get in there and wheel that thing.
“I’ll absolutely be watching and hoping for the best for that No. 48 car. My team means everything to me, and I know we’re all very disappointed with the situation. I’m confident that is going to get in and do a great job.
“He has track position to start the race and I hope he can make the most of it. I know Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) is going to call a great race and our guys on pit road are going to get it done. So, I’m wishing him all the best and I’ll be watching as fan, unfortunately.”
Daniels has the utmost faith for his team that they’ll do everything to assure Allgaier does a good job following Friday’s phone conversation to go over their weekend plans.
“We have a job to do to go out and perform at the highest level that we can and to make good pit calls and to execute a good race,” said Daniels. “Obviously, Justin has a lot of history in Cup cars and at the Speedway, so we have a lot of confidence in him. And, our group has been building every week to make sure we can execute and perform at a high level.”
Certain plans were even made as early in the season such as having a seat belt and pedal extensions from one of the haulers before the pandemic. It had gotten to the point that once racing resumed in May, HMS have already had a set of gear ready and prepared for Allgaier should he be required for assistance.
“If I had to drive one of their cars, I can basically fit in any of their cars,” said Allgaier. “They did go and unload the car last night and just move everything around to make sure my stuff was inside of it.
“Then in the morning, I’ll have to jump in and set myself to be comfortable in the car before they roll through tech. So, it’ll put them a little bit behind, but I think the process is long before we get to these races started anyways. I think we’ll have plenty of time to make that happen.”
The 16th race of the 2020 campaign will be overshadowed due to Johnson’s absence, but Daniels will make sure to keep him in the team’s thoughts and put on a great performance for the four-time Indy winner with Allgaier behind the wheel.
“Even though it’s a very unfortunate circumstance for us all, we still have to do our part to make Ally proud and to make Hendrick Motorsports proud and to do honor to Jimmie and the No. 48 car just to have a good weekend. So, that’s our plan,” said Daniels.
Live coverage of the 27th renewal of the 400-mile race starts at 4 p.m. EST on NBC. Hendrick Motorsports have won 11 times with its most recent victory coming from Kasey Kahne in 2017.