Getty Images

How Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited Justin Allgaier’s competitive fire

Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — With 12 races left in the 2015 Cup season, Justin Allgaier was ready to tap out of racing.

The 29-year-old’s enthusiasm for competing had worn thin after two years of middling results driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports. His best result through 60 races was eighth earlier that spring at Bristol.

It had already been announced he wouldn’t return to the team in 2016. His spot would be taken by Clint Bowyer.

Allgaier, who had three Xfinity wins at the time, called it one of the “darker” periods of his career. It was a long way from 2018, where he enters this weekend’s Xfinity playoff opener at Richmond as the No. 1 seed.

“I was ready to walk away,” Allgaier said Tuesday at the Xfinity Playoff Media Day. “At the end of that season I was trying to figure out an exit strategy, right? What does the future hold, where do you go from here?”

All this weighed on Allgaier on Sept. 6, the day of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Then Allgaier climbed in the bed of a truck with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Allgaier doesn’t know if it was the result of an “abnormally bad” qualifying effort for Earnhardt or a “fantastic effort” by himself.

Either way, Allgaier was set to start the Southern 500 in 27th, right next to the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Through that, the two were paired in the same truck to take them around the 1.366-mile track following driver introductions.

By the end of their trip from the start-finish line to pit road, Allgaier said “there was a fire lit” underneath him.

Earnhardt told NBC Sports he doesn’t remember exactly what he told him that day, but Allgaier recalled what the sport’s 15-time most popular driver discussed with him as they waved to fans waiting for the race.

“Dale’s big thing to me was, ‘Man, I’m sorry that things didn’t work out the way they wanted them to. … It wasn’t for a lack of effort. … I really thought if you guys could get something figured out you guys would be a lot better. … I’ve been impressed with what you’ve done on the race track and how you’ve driven the car … In the right situation you would excel.'”

Justin Allgaier races against Carl Edwards during the 2015 Southern 500. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

As they slowly traversed the “Lady in Black,” Allgaier said they covered “20 years of life in that one lap.”

“He had a lot of confidence in me in a time when I promise you I didn’t have the confidence in myself to go out there and think we could run good in anything,” Allgaier said. “It was like everything that I had thought that I needed somebody to say, God just put it right in Dale’s mouth to say it.  I heard everything I needed to hear.”

Allgaier doesn’t remember where he finished the Southern 500 (33rd), but he knows he had a bad race.

“It was one of those days where you want to forget it,” Allgaier said. “I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I was in a better place, I was happy. I was ready to go.”

Within two weeks Allgaier was having discussions with Earnhardt and JR Motorsports about joining their Xfinity Series team with sponsorship in tow from Brandt, which had sponsored Allgaier in Cup and Xfinity since 2011.

About a month after that, Allgaier was “signed, sealed, delivered (and) ready to race” for JRM.

“I didn’t want to fail again,” Allgaier said. “And I knew I had the tools to go do it and I had the people around me and we’ve been lucky enough to do that. This year’s kind of the year that it all perfectly came together and everything worked.”

Justin Allgaier and wife Ashley pose with their daughter Harper after the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 10 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Three years and four days after the Darlington conversation, Allgaier, now 32, sat on the frontstretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He and JRM’s No. 7 team had just won the Lilly Diabetes 250.

In his third year with JRM, it was Allgaier’s fifth Xfinity win of 2018, a career-best. It also gave him seven wins in the last two seasons.

Now he and his family were about to kiss the bricks on the start-finish line, a tradition for winners at the historic track.

His wife, Ashley, looked at their daughter, Harper Grace.

“I hope one day you realize the gravity of what you’re about to do,” Allgaier recalled her saying.

“It hit me,” Allgaier said. “‘Oh man, I might not be able to do this. I might not be able to bend down here and kiss these bricks.’ That was a cool moment. That was something special.

“That’s probably what’s kept me in this sport. There was a time in my life where I was ready to quit racing and go home and not ever get back behind the wheel of a race car ever again. To have those moments now, I think (Harper Grace) very clearly understands that it is hard to win in this sport and I think she’s enjoying these Victory Lane moments when she can because you don’t know when the next one may or may not come.”

Allgaier will look to make more special moments in the playoffs, which begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“It’s taken me almost 10 years to win five races, then this year alone we’ve won five,” Allgaier said. “That’s special. That doesn’t happen because I changed who I was. Right? I didn’t all of sudden learn how to drive at the beginning of 2018 and say, ‘Hey, let’s go win a bunch of races.’ That’s not all what happened. Everything has clicked.”

Allgaier added, “We’re doing our jobs together in harmony and we’re executing and that’s what makes the difference. It’s every piece of the puzzle that goes together and it’s just been fun.”

 and on Facebook

Ryan: Some random thoughts while waiting to race after the rain

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Wet weather in Indianapolis has precluded any Cup or Xfinity cars getting on track at the Brickyard this weekend. So in lieu of any Indianapolis Motor Speedway activity, let’s revisit a few postrace musings from the Southern 500:

If there’s something we’ve learned about Brad Keselowski in a dynamic decade as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken, plucky and cerebral stars, it’s that he rarely ducks a question.

Any question.

His feelings about the most divisive of national controversies?

Keselowski will weigh in firmly but gracefully (and admittedly against the advice of his PR counsel).

Opinions on head injuries that run counter to the advice of board-certified neurologists?

Keselowski will strike a recalcitrant tone and remain consistent year after year.

Big-picture solutions on what’s ailing NASCAR and how to fix it?

Keselowski devoted his 2012 championship address to tackling them and then was reprimanded for sharing his plan of attack.

But there was one question in 2018 that had the Team Penske driver intentionally and uncharacteristically shying away from microphones this season. And in the context of the emotionally and politically charged topics that Keselowski has embraced in the past, it seemed rather benign.

When are you going to win again?

“I’ve been dodging you so I don’t have to answer it,” he told ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass after Sunday’s victory in the Southern 500, his first since October 2017. Keselowski admitted it had “weighed heavy” on his mind that he might have to face that question over the final 12 weeks of the season.

It was striking to hear from a star whose confidence and sense of place within NASCAR are typically immutable. But it was yet another reminder of how fleeting success is and how fickle an impact it has even on someone as self-assured as NASCAR’s first Millennial champion, who now is in his ninth full season in the Cup Series.

Idealism and worldliness haven’t left the 34-year-old, but Keselowski now also speaks with the wizened perspective of a realist veteran in the vein of Mark Martin’s mindfulness that every win could be the last.

“Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee,” Keselowski said. “What’s so difficult about those moments is early in my career, 2010, we didn’t have cars anywhere close to being able to win, and then 2011 came, at least the second half of the year, and we did have cars capable of winning.

“And I started to kind of make a name for myself, and there’s almost a point in time where you take that for granted, and then you start to see that slip away, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, this could be it, right?’  I might not ever get those opportunities again.”

“Moments like today are just so refreshing.  They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well.”

That was one of many illustrative postrace analogies from Keselowski, reminding us of the unique candor that’s been missing since removing himself from the NASCAR industry conversation for much of the past year during his victory lane absence.

He compared the agonizing confirmation of learning he’d averted a speeding penalty on his fateful pit stop with waiting “on a death sentence.” The moves he perfected in Saturday’s Xfinity race that went unused Sunday were like being ready for a dance floor anthem that never was played.

NASCAR is a better place when regularly graced by his distinctive viewpoints, but those shared at Darlington also had a new bent.

The typically genuine introspection was tinged with a greater world-weariness from Keselowski, who has had a child, gotten married and settled fully into family life since the 2011-14 era when he regularly clashed with the NASCAR establishment.

He was less brash and more humble late Sunday night after a Darlington sweep. But just as sharply insightful when describing the downsides of a 29-race winless streak.

“When you’re not fast, life sucks as a race car driver,” he said. “You’re just literally going around beating your head up against a wall, hoping that, like I said, each weekend that it’ll show up, that the engineering will show up and the team will show up and that everything will happen just perfect, because you have to.

“And that you won’t screw it up as a driver when they do show up.”

The few times that his No. 2 Ford has been in position to win this year, Keselowski hasn’t capitalized, and it has seemed a result of pressing and being less focused.

Arguably the best racer in the draft at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski crashed out of the season’s first three restrictor-plate races for the first time in his career.

“I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating,” he said. “And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.”

He does know the questions about it will subside.

At least for now.


Kyle Larson’s classy postrace interviews at Darlington – in which he avoided laying any blame with his team for the final pit stop that cost his dominant car the win – were more signs of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s growth as a leader.

Though bluntness is among his most appealing traits, Larson clearly has embraced his role as the focal point for the No. 42 Chevrolet. He isn’t much of a car guy, so there are inherent limits to how much Larson authentically can be immersed in the team’s inner workings. But he is doing and saying all the right things to instill faith without compromising his honesty.

Aside from how he graciously handled Darlington, other recent indicators of the maturation have been:

  • His emphasis on the less visible gains made by his team even while addressing why Ganassi has lagged behind other Chevrolets over the past two months (the trademark candor emerged after his third at Darlington, noting “I feel like we’ve kind of been stale up until this weekend”).
  • An apology to crew chief Chad Johnston for being “in a bad mood” on the team radio during the first half of his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway (where he started from the pole but lacked speed and had “an off race”).
  • His sensitivity to how his dirt-racing schedule is viewed, which ostensibly is through the eyes of NASCAR fans but just as importantly could be how his team accepts his moonlighting.

Larson, 26, is always a joy to watch behind the wheel, but his emergence as the rock of the team (though still mild-mannered and reserved in nature) also has been beguiling.


The past two Cup races have shown the critical importance of lane sensitivity for leaders on restarts.

On every restart of the Southern 500, the first-place car took the inside and retained the position. The story was the same at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the outside line was heavily preferred.

Of the last six restarts on the 0.533-mile oval, winner Kurt Busch was the only driver who started on the inside in second and took the lead. No one else even held the position. Between Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer, the other five drivers who restarted in second lost an average of 2.6 spots when the green flag dropped.

The restart disparity is magnified most at Bristol and Martinsville Speedway. But Larson’s plight at Darlington (essentially losing the race despite a dominant car because he lost the race out of the pits by roughly 6 inches to Keselowski) underscores how arbitrary the positioning on restarts also can be in deciding outcomes. If you are in the wrong lane, it often doesn’t matter how strong your car is.

Lessons learned from Darlington, Jimmie Johnson focused on what’s ahead

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — It’s quite simple, Jimmie Johnson says.

“We just need to stop making mistakes,’’ said the seven-time champion, who has yet to secure a playoff spot entering Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Last weekend’s 39th-place at Darlington Raceway produced a litany of mistakes. The woes cut Johnson’s lead on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, who holds the final playoff spot, to 19 points.

Johnson and Bowman will make the playoffs if there is a repeat winner Sunday. If there is a new winner, then one of them will be bumped from the playoffs. Johnson is the only driver who has never failed to qualify for the playoffs/chase since the format debuted in 2004.

Johnson’s woes last week included all facets of the team. It started in qualifying. He hit the wall in the second round. With the race an impound event, the team had to start at the back of the 40-car field because the repairs came after qualifying.

Johnson climbed to 14th in the race before he had a loose wheel. He had a commitment line violation on that pit stop and had to return for a penalty. His race later ended after ran oil pump issue.

“There’s plenty of learn,” Johnson said of the Darlington weekend. “First and foremost, I look at myself. The excitement of having a good first round in qualifying, the frustration of having a bad first attempt in the second round led to me running wide in Turn 4. There’s the first mistake. I can learn a lot from that for sure.

“Going into the race, work our way into the top 15 and unfortunately a loose wheel, those things happen, it’s a part of it, a mistake there. I compound the mistake by missing pit road. Here we go again.

“Then the oil pump situation that happened. I think we learned a lot from that to make sure that doesn’t happen to our cars again in the future, especially at that track. So there are plenty of takeaways, plenty of things we learned. Kind of the overarching thing for me is compounding mistakes. People make mistakes, let’s not make a bad situation worse.

“We just need to stop making mistakes. I think I was in a position and drove outside of my means and drove over the 100 percent level because I knew I had such a good car. And I’m so eager to get back to winning and get back to leading laps that I just tried too hard.”

Johnson has two top-10 finishes in the last 11 races. He has gone career-long 48 races since his last Cup victory. When asked Saturday what a win this weekend would mean in what has been a difficult season, he said: “I couldn’t even put it into words.

“We’ve worked so hard and have had some good moments along the way that could have turned into great moments,” he said. “And mistakes on my behalf or the team or whatever it might be; bad luck, misfortune, we’ve just not been able to capitalize on opportunities that have been there. Plus, we’ve had a tough year. So, it’s been extremely frustrating and extremely difficult to live through, but we are all still very eager to turn it around and know that we will.”

Kasey Kahne details conditions that will keep him out of car at Indy

3 Comments

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – As last weekend’s Southern 500 progressed on a hot evening, Kasey Kahne quit taking fluids in his car.

He couldn’t drink any more because he was nauseous. With about 100 laps left in the 367-lap race, Kahne said “it was really hard to keep my eyes open and see. I was trying to control my heart rate because it was so high.

“At that point, all I’m doing is focusing on my body and my health and not what I should actually be focusing on and that’s racing.”

After finishing 24th, Kahne vomited on the way to the infield care center. He threw up after he arrived there. Kahne received IVs in both arms.

Even an hour after the Southern 500, Kahne said “the doctor still can’t get my pulse because it’s pumping so fast. I just can’t control it. I need to figure out how to control it.”

Darlington was the worst it has been for Kahne but he said Friday that the issue has gotten progressively worse the past two years and he doesn’t know why. He said Kentucky this year was “rough,” Indy last year “was rough”, Bristol this year was “pretty rough” on him. He said there were other races as well.

“I just can’t control the temperature in my body and my heart rate. Once it gets to that point, there’s nothing I can do until I get out of the car. We’re still trying to figure that out. That’s why I’m not racing this weekend, I don’t want to create any more damage to myself or my body.”

Regan Smith will drive in place of Kahne this weekend at Indianapolis for Leavine Family Racing.

While Kahne said doctors are hoping to have some answers early this, he has looked ahead to next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and seen the forecast for temperatures near 100 degrees all weekend.

“It definitely worries me,” Kahne said on a conference call with reporters Friday morning. “But if we can come up with a solution to stay hydrated throughout the race prior to them and we feel really comfortable with it, then I’ll be in Las Vegas.”

Kahne admits this issue this was “definitely” part of his decision to decide not to run full-time in NASCAR beyond this season.

The problem is Kahne can’t replace the fluids lost sweating in the car. Practices aren’t as bad because he isn’t in the car as long as races. He said he knew Darlington would be hot and was “very hydrated” four days going into the race.

“At this point I have to just figure out how to finish these races, how to be able to go that long in a hot car in the environment that we’re in, between the air temp and the dew point degrees, just to control it all,” Kahne said.

“I work out three, four days a week. I run, I bike, I lift, I do interval work, whatever it may be. I feel great doing all that stuff. I’m in really good shape. That’s not the issue at all. Thirty minutes to an hour workouts and I’m fine. Just like in the Cup race I’m fine for the first hour, two hours probably. Then it starting going downhill from there.

“We just did blood work. The doctor had a few different tests that we did this week. So we’re just going through that stuff, trying to find a way to, you know, be able to put together a whole race and not hurt my body internally by the end of each race when they’re this hot right now.”

Bump & Run: Is Kyle Larson’s Southern 500 run a sign of progress?

Getty Images
Leave a comment
What do you make of Kyle Larson not winning the Southern 500 after dominating the race? A sign of progress based on the speed the car had or a sign that the team can’t find a way to win in a season where Larson no wins, five runner-up finishes and two third-place results?
Nate Ryan: It was more indicative of the importance of lane choice on restarts at Darlington Raceway than anything else. If the pit crew is able to dispatch the No. 42 Chevrolet about a tenth of a second earlier, Larson restarts on the inside and likely wins the Southern 500. It still was a highly encouraging week for Larson, whose team regained the speed that had been missing the past two months by installing some last-minute components on the car from a test at Richmond Raceway
Dustin Long: I look at how encouraged Kyle Larson was moments after climbing from his car after the race. Instead of being dejected with a win going away, he talked on pit road about how that car was the best he’s had in more than a year.
Daniel McFadin: It showed that no matter how good a car Larson has, if you take away the high lane from him at a track like Darlington he becomes mortal. That was a result of a marginally slower pit stop than Brad Keselowski‘s team. The No. 42 team has lacked the killer instinct it had in closing out races last year.
Dan Beaver: Finishing second or third has to be getting a little tiresome overall, but this week might be a different. Larson has finished in the top three seven times in 2018, but this is the first time he has backed up one top five with another so he should be encouraged.
What did Ross Chastain’s performance this past weekend driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity event at Darlington show you?
Nate Ryan: He is worthy of consideration for a top-tier Xfinity Series ride.
Dustin Long: It showed he belongs in the conversation for some open rides in the series this season.
Daniel McFadin: It solidified Chastain as a wheelman, something he’s shown in over-performing with JD Motorsports. But it also exemplified the stark difference in equipment between the frontrunners in Xfinity and the teams running just outside the top 12. It’s night and day.
Dan Beaver: The equation of car versus driver skews slightly toward car. Before Chastain, everyone who has driven the No. 42 this year has scored at least a top 10. All but Justin Marks has a top five.
The only way the 16-driver Cup playoff lineup changes this weekend at Indianapolis is if a driver outside that group wins. Of those needing to win to make the playoffs, who would you give the best chance of doing so?
Nate Ryan: Ryan Newman. The Indiana native is a past winner of the Brickyard, and Richard Childress Racing seems to have its Chevrolets trending in the right direction. How delightfully apropos would it be if Newman, who finished runner-up in the 2014 playoffs despite going winless, were to upset the most points-dependent playoff grid in history?
Dustin Long: Ryan Newman has had better performances lately and crew chief Luke Lambert is good at strategy. That’s the type of combination it will take for such a win this weekend.
Daniel McFadin: Daniel Suarez if he can use what he learned at Pocono in a near-winning performance. But the No. 19 team does not have momentum entering Indy. They’ve placed 11th or worse in the last three races.
Dan Beaver: Quite frankly, it’s impossible to predict. Anyone currently outside playoff contention who can win will do so with race strategy. If it comes down to a driver who suddenly finds a burst of speed, Daniel Suarez or William Byron are most likely because of the strength of their organizations at Indy.