SPARTA, Ky. -- On one side is a driver who has won the Southern 500 and gets his cars from an organization that fielded championship vehicles on the Sprint Cup Series for six years in a row. On the other side is a driver who has won the Indianapolis 500 and competes for the team that currently owns the title in NASCAR's premier division.
And in the middle, there's Justin Allgaier.
"These guys look at it as a small team," he said, motioning to crewmen inside his No. 31 hauler in the Nationwide Series garage. "They look at it as an independent team. For them, it puts a lot of gratification in their hearts when they can run with these guys who are affiliated with Cup organizations."
They're certainly doing that now. Allgaier's season-best runner-up finish last weekend at Road America moved the Turner Scott Motorsports driver up to second in the standings, 28 points behind series leader Regan Smith. Now, it's on to Friday night's race at Kentucky Speedway, where Allgaier has finished eighth or better in four of his five career starts. Through it all, there's the effort to prove that a team unaffiliated with a Sprint Cup program can be the best in the Nationwide Series.
Smith, a driver with 171 Sprint Cup starts to his credit, drives for a JR Motorsports team that's affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, the juggernaut that won five straight titles with Jimmie Johnson and supplied the cars that Tony Stewart drove to a crown the next year. Until last week, the driver right behind him was Sam Hornish Jr., an Indy 500 champ who's made 130 premier-series starts in NASCAR, and drives for the same Penske Racing operation that won the sport's biggest prize with Brad Keselowski a season ago.
Thanks in large part to his runner-up finish on the Wisconsin road course, Allgaier is now wedged between them. In fact, he's currently the only driver in the top five of the Nationwide standings whose program isn't affiliated with a Sprint Cup team. Turner Scott may use Hendrick engines, but it builds it own cars, gets by without a dedicated test team and uses volume to make up for what it lacks by not having a direct pipeline to a premier-series organization.
James Buescher won the Camping World Truck Series title for Turner Scott last year, and Nationwide rookie Kyle Larson continues to open eyes almost every week. But the standard-bearer for the outfit remains Allgaier, grizzled beyond his 27 years and without a single Sprint Cup start to his credit, the epitome of a Nationwide stalwart trying to make it the old-fashioned way.
"I would say our team is a lot like Thomas the Train. The little engine that could," Allgaier said. "It may not be the glamorous story of being a Cup team or anything like that, but it's a very big team. We have a lot of resources. We don't have all the resources we need, but Harry Scott and Steve Turner have done a great job trying to refine an organization like they have into something that's probably bigger than it should be. Truth be told, it's probably bigger and better than it should be."
In truth, this is far from a shoestring organization. Turner Scott employs roughly 160 people and fields a vast array of vehicles -- three full-time Nationwide and Truck series teams, a few part-time entries, and five cars on the K&N Pro Series. There's a method there, one that attempts to use sheer quantity to build the infrastructure and sponsor base necessary to compete with opponents who draw from Sprint Cup programs.
There are positives and negatives to that -- while Allgaier believes Turner Scott can be a little more nimble by keeping so much in-house, it's also often later to discover new information the Cup-affiliated programs might unearth first. "By the time we find out about something, somebody else has already had the parts made and is running them," Allgaier said. "It just takes a lot longer, and that's where we feel like our struggle is. ? We have to evolve as quickly as we can, or we'll get swallowed up by the other teams."
Which might be why the No. 31 team seems to be finding its stride now. Allgaier has lingered in the top five of the standings much of the season, steady if somewhat unspectacular, weathering a spin at Richmond that remains his only poor finish all year. They've had some issues on short runs, which has hurt them on late restarts and perhaps explains why Allgaier hasn't been more of a threat to win. But he certainly was at Road America last Saturday, when he improved from third place and 59 points behind Smith, to second and within real striking distance.
"You can't deny the fact that that was a huge point hit," said Smith, who was spun while running in the top five and ended up a season-worst 32nd, "but with that said, that's why we worked hard to have the big lead and strive to have the big lead. I would much rather be the one being chased from 28 points out in front than the one chasing from 28 points behind."
Then again, Allgaier has become accustomed to dogged pursuits, whether of more-advantaged opponents on the race track or his own personal hopes of reaching NASCAR's top level. Despite five years on the Nationwide tour, two of them with Penske, he's never made a Sprint Cup start. Given that Turner Scott doesn't field a program on the premier series, he has no direct route to get there. But that doesn't mean the Riverton, Ill., native has given up hope.
"My goals are still to get to the Cup level, and I'm ? still plugging away, proving that it doesn't matter if you're (affiliated) with a Cup team or not," he said. "We can still go out there and run good. I think for me, that's been the best part. I may never get that opportunity. But I can stand here today and tell you I've given 110 percent in everything I've ever done, and if that's not good enough, that's not good enough. But if I can walk away right now knowing I did everything I could ? that's all I can ever ask."
That doesn't mean it's easy. "It's tough," he conceded. "Especially watching guys I'm running with or beating over here on the Nationwide side get opportunities. Or younger guys. Let's face it, I know that in the NASCAR world I'm probably on the older side of getting a shot, at 27. Not that I'm old by any means. But just as far as people getting that opportunity -- I'm definitely going to have to work hard at getting it quickly if it's going to happen."
In that way, Allgaier is almost the perfect fit for his race team, given that both have to work a little harder to get the desired result. Allgaier may never get to the Sprint Cup level, and Turner Scott may have to wait a long time to win a Nationwide title. But the gratification comes on days like last Saturday, or last year's victory in Montreal, when the differences disappear and the No. 31 team stands not just on equal footing, but a little bit taller than most everyone else.
"I think we all want to be the biggest, baddest, best Nationwide team," Allgaier said. "But as far as independents go, I think we've done a good job of putting our name in the hat. ? I think we have three really good teams and three really good drivers who are capable of showing what this team is all about."
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