If Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was a Broadway play, Justin Allgaier would be the understudy stepping in to fill in for the star, namely, Jimmie Johnson.
And while it may be looked at as only a fill-in role for Allgaier driving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet due to Johnson having tested positive Friday for COVID-19, a strong run in Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) could put Allgaier’s name on the list of potential replacements for Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this season.
“I would say the list for the 48 car of potential drivers is extremely long and I don’t know where I fit on that list,” Allgaier said after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “For me, 100% is what I can give. I think it’s gonna be important to go out there and just do what I can do.
“And if an opportunity were to come out of that and to go somewhere, obviously I would love for that opportunity. But on the other side of that point, I have a great relationship with my team at JR Motorsports. … That’s gonna be the most important part is, just going it 100% (Sunday) and whatever happens after that happens.”
Johnson filling in for Johnson isn’t exactly a surprise. Allgaier has been Johnson’s designated backup since NASCAR resumed racing in May following a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have had our own basically secondary line-up and that includes anyone from driver to crew chief all the way through the crew members that travel to the race track,” Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said. “There really was no extra thought that we had to put into it. This lineup was already set.
“We had all the plans in place just out of the abundance of caution that we wanted to take. And again, even before going back racing in Darlington, this has been in place. There were no extra decisions to be made. Justin has been on stand-by this whole time and has been aware that this could happen.”
For now, Allgaier is slated to replace Johnson for Sunday’s Brickyard 400. There’s also the possibility he could stay in the No. 48 for next weekend’s race at Kentucky.
Johnson must have two negative COVID-19 tests in no less than a 24-hour period and also be given clearance by his doctor before he can return behind the wheel.
By missing the Brickyard 400, which he’s won four times, Johnson also snaps a streak of 663 consecutive starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie campaign in 2002. It’s the longest streak of any active driver in the Cup Series.
“I didn’t expect this opportunity would come to fruition,” Allgaier said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, the 48 team, I’ve worked with a lot of guys on that team closely. I’m excited in one aspect, but the other part of this is we’re thinking about Jimmie and his whole family. Their safety is of utmost importance.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, we want to see Jimmie get healthy and (Johnson’s wife) Chandra get healthy. … I texted Jimmie last night and said I want to see him get healthy quick so he can get back because I want to see him back in victory lane a lot more before the end of the season.”
While Allgaier is known most for his 319 Xfinity Series starts, 11 wins and 182 top-10 finishes, the 34-year-old native of Riverton, Illinois, also has 76 starts in the Cup Series on his resume, with a career-best finish of eighth at Bristol in spring 2015.
Given his prior Cup experience, as well as working hand-in-hand with Hendrick Motorsports in various capacities such as testing over the years – team owner Rick Hendrick is also a part-owner of JR Motorsports – Allgaier is both comfortable as well as somewhat nervous of becoming the first driver to ever fill in for Johnson during Johnson’s Cup career.
“That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re already on pins and needles when you’re filling in for somebody else,” Allgaier said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and give them the best finish that you can give them.
“When you’re able to do that and be comfortable, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s what’s been the best part about all of this for me.”
Allgaier considers racing in Johnson’s shoes one of the most humbling experiences of his career.
“I can’t even begin to describe it to you, to be honest with you,” Allgaier said. “The cars at HMS, any of the four cars, it’s definitely an honor to drive and to be part of that program.
“The 48, being the iconic number it is, Jimmie winning seven championships and here (at Indianapolis) four times, the guy Jimmie is and the respect he has in the sport, you top that off with the fact he’s the only driver to drive the 48 since he started his career there.”
While Johnson and Hendrick aren’t putting any undue pressure on Allgaier, he understands the gravity of the position he’s been placed in.
“If you have the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick, you take it, no questions asked and try to run with that ball,” Allgaier said.
But at the same time, Allgaier isn’t going to try and drive over his head or beyond his ability just because he has such a great opportunity.
“Opportunity or not does not supersede to go out there and do the job at hand,” Allgaier said. “100% is what I have to offer. That’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow.
“101 or 110 (percent) or trying to be a hero, there’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity to run at its max potential.
“In my mind, I believe that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve gotta do a really good job. … I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in bad positions, I don’t do things Jimmie wouldn’t do and being somebody different in the car, everybody in the field is going to know that.
“There are going to be some that respect that and others who are probably going to take advantage of that. You just have to know who you’re racing against and put yourself in the best position you can.
“I just have to make sure when the checkered flag falls tomorrow, I’ve given it 100% and whatever the results are, that’s just what they’re going to be.”