When Justin Allgaier walked into JR Motorsports the Monday after last year‘s championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway, he was expecting to go over plans for the 2023 season. A few hours later, he left the shop confused.
“I felt like I walked into the wrong room and the wrong meeting,” Allgaier said last weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
Instead of keeping everything the same, JR Motorsports elected to change each of its driver/crew chief lineups. Among the switches was Jason Burdett moving from the No. 7 team to work with JRM newcomer Brandon Jones, who joined the team over the offseason. L.W. Miller, vice president of motorsports at JRM, and Mike Bumgarner, JRM‘s competition director, had a list of potential options for Allgaier. The majority of them were under contract with different teams.
“I should have known because I walked in and our walls are whiteboards,” Allgaier said. “There‘s all of these scenarios of people and crew chiefs. I‘m looking at the wall and completely glazed over it. We went over it and I thought that wall is for me, not for them. It was a unique experience.”
In Allgaier‘s first seven years with JR Motorsports, he experienced great success with Burdett on the pit box. The duo won 15 races together and made a handful of Championship 4 appearances. However, they came up empty in each of those races.
“I went through a whole range of emotions,” Allgaier said. “I was disappointed, sad, and a little bit frustrated. It‘s really easy to get frustrated and think this is an attack on me or them. When I truly sat down and dug into the root of it — L.W. and I talked a lot about the root of why they were doing this — and I‘m like, ‘They are exactly right. This is exactly what we need to do.‘
“It could all fail and this could be an experiment gone bad. But it won‘t be because the right processes weren‘t employed.”
The first call that Allgaier made was to Jim Pohlman, who‘s been an industry veteran since the late 1990s. Growing up in the midwest and competing on dirt, the duo have known each other since Allgaier was 5 years old. Pohlman was under contract with Richard Childress Racing, and served as an interim crew chief multiple times last season in both the Cup and Xfinity Series.
Still, JRM went over its list of candidates, but wanted input from Allgaier. Fortunately for Allgaier, Pohlman was let out of his contract by RCR, and later that month was named the new crew chief of the No. 7 Chevrolet.
“Justin and I have tried to get together a couple of other times with the first one being Penske, when he jumped up from the ARCA deal (in 2010),” Pohlman stated. “That didn‘t quite work out. Penske was a big organization and had quite a bit of depth with some very experienced crew chiefs over there. For me, it wasn‘t the right fit at the right time.”
During Allgaier‘s championship-winning ARCA Menards Series season in 2008, it was Pohlman that guided him during the second half of the season. Allgaier won a series-high six races that year.
Over the years, Pohlman said that he stayed in touch with Allgaier in a professional manner. But Pohlman was also primarily working in the Cup garage for the last couple of decades, serving as an interim crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2011.
Knowing that it‘s hard to work with friends, there is a chance that the pairing doesn‘t work out. But after seeing Pohlman‘s commitment and dedication, Allgaier can almost guarantee it will be a success.
“I can tell you with 100% certainty that there‘s no doubt in my mind that this works out,” he said. “What I‘ve learned about Jim is, I‘ve always known he‘s passionate and his dedication to it, but I‘ve seen a whole new Jim that is every I is dotted, every T is crossed. It‘s truly incredible to see the work ethic and effort that he‘s put into this program.”
Despite working primarily on the Cup side, Pohlman has never been a crew chief for a full NASCAR season. But he has experience in many different facets of the sport that he believes he‘s more than ready for this opportunity.
“I don‘t want to say overdue, but when I moved down here at a young age, that was the goal to become a crew chief at the highest level of motorsports,” he said. “I‘m a guy that believes everything happens for a reason, and I believe that this opportunity and this timing is correct for both Justin and I. The reason I say that is because if things worked out earlier in his career, I think maybe I was too immature and Justin didn‘t have the experience, and it might not have gone very well.”
Allgaier admits that change, in his 13th full-time season as an Xfinity Series driver, can be scary, especially after having the same core group of guys working on the No. 7 car since he joined JRM. As much as he and Burdett were alike, they were also different. And Allgaier thinks their lone flaw was lacking in the same areas. He and Pohlman, however, are polar opposites.
“I think Jason and I would have been perfectly content with our group and doing the same thing over again and trying to go for another championship because it‘s been five years in the final four,” Allgaier said. “It‘s not like we‘re bad. But sometimes you have to make a change to unlock that little bit of extra potential.”
That potential comes with the goal of winning their first race together in the series‘ first 10 races. The pairing got off to a solid start at Daytona, as Allgaier led 36 laps and finished third. He also believed it‘s the best superspeedway car he‘s ever driven.
“My expectations are very high,” Pohlman said of 2023. “I feel like in order to hit the goal of winning a championship this year, which is a tall order for a first-year crew chief, but this group and organization is capable of it. I‘m here to do that and be the guy. I want this group and organization to be the one to put an Xfinity Series championship on Justin‘s mantle. He‘s long overdue and deserving of it.”
The 2023 campaign started off solid for Allgaier, with the No. 7 car pacing the field for 36 laps in the season opener. It‘s the most laps he‘s ever led in a start at Daytona.