Justin Allgaier has been here before. Several times, in fact.
Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the JR Motorsports veteran will seek to clinch his fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 appearance in the past six seasons.
But for the first time in the Xfinity Series since 2017, no one is locked into the championship race going into the Round of 8 eliminator.
While Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger (both +47 above the cutline) are in good shape, Allgaier (+9) and Daniel Hemric (+7) hold the last two transfer spots by single-digit margins.
Justin Haley (-7) is on the outside looking in, but still has a real shot of making the Championship 4 on points if necessary.
Then there’s the bottom three – Noah Gragson (-24), Brandon Jones (-40), and Harrison Burton (-51) – who are all capable of winning and putting Allgaier’s hopes to make the Nov. 6 title race at Phoenix Raceway in jeopardy.
Allgaier must consider all of that as he races Saturday night. But again, he’s been here before.
He entered last year’s Martinsville eliminator eight points above the cutline. During the race, he found himself battling Haley for the last transfer spot. But Allgaier made a steady climb in the final stage to finish second, which was enough to send him to Phoenix.
As he looked back on that race Thursday in a media teleconference, Allgaier said that keeping calm when the points situation was constantly in flux was important. He figures it will be important again here.
“You’ve gotta look at all the pieces of the puzzle and say, ‘OK, is it time to panic? Is it not?’,” he said. “And I think that for us, as a race team, on our 7 team, the times that we’ve panicked and we try to throw those Hail Marys and go for broke, usually that’s whenever it all goes wrong.
“I think for us, the races where we stay within ourselves and stay calm – I’ve got a great spotter, Eddie d’Hondt, and a great crew chief in Jason Burdett, both of which are extremely calming people – so for me, even at a race track like Martinsville, where it can get amped up and excited, if I’m able to stay calm and we just do our thing and we run the same way that I feel like we’ve run week in and week out, we’re not gonna have any problems with this.”
Allgaier is also heartened by his JR Motorsports team’s continued success on short tracks. JRM has claimed five of the eight Xfinity short track races run since the start of the 2020 season.
The organization has had two short track wins in 2021. One of them came in April at Martinsville, where Josh Berry and Gragson finished 1-2. Gragson won the next short track race in September at Richmond.
In that April race at Martinsville, Allgaier finished ninth after some changes his No. 7 team wanted to try on their car didn’t quite pan out as hoped. But he was confident the notebook built up from the race, particularly from Berry and Gragson, can help him Saturday.
“Our organization really feeds on the fact that we have four cars,” he said. “It’s strength in numbers. It’s strength in people. And so, even though we may not have the same driving styles, we kind of have a good understanding of, ‘Okay, if they run this, we can alter a few things here to match my driving style’ – or Sam (Mayer)’s driving style, or match Michael (Annett)’s driving style and feel like we’re making educated decisions.”
But for all the educated decisions a team can make, Martinsville is a place that can make them null and void at a moment’s notice.
All the perils of short track racing will be present and likely lead to attrition that can strike any of the eight remaining playoff contenders. No one is safe – not even Cindric and Allmendinger, and certainly not a driver on the cutline like Allgaier.
Thursday, Allgaier sounded certain that none of the playoff drivers would be getting away clean from Martinsville. The goal is to manage whatever contact is sustained and carry on.
“Pit road is extremely tight. The style of racing that we have there is extremely tight. Restarts are always hairy. You have to really keep all of that in the back of your mind,” he said.
“You have to race the race track and really not focus on the other competitors. You have to really put yourself in the best position you can, and if you do that all day, I think not only will you have a shot at winning the race, but you’ll have a shot at maybe being one of the guys that finishes.
“I think we’re going to see some attrition. Whether that be from our playoff eight or not, I don’t know. But I think there’s definitely gonna be some attrition throughout the course of the day, and not putting yourself in those positions is going to be super important.”