Meet Justin Allgaier, NASCAR’s only full-time driver from Illinois in this weekend’s Chicago races

Yes, this means we all have to root for the No. 7 Camaro on Saturday.

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Illinois native Justin Allgaier at the NASCAR Xfinity Series DoorDash 250 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on June 10, 2023.

Illinois native Justin Allgaier at the NASCAR Xfinity Series DoorDash 250 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on June 10, 2023.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Let’s get a couple of very important things straight about NASCAR driver Justin Allgaier: He knows he digs Italian beef and knows exactly how he prefers to order it.

“Hot, not wet,” he said. “Wet is too messy for me.”

The man makes no apologies for it.

Allgaier also had something of an epiphany this week at a Lou Malnati’s.

“I’m always a pepperoni person,” he said, “but they have this sausage and, man, I’m telling you, it’s like a brick. So good.”

Chicago to the core, this Allgaier guy is. Well, close. OK, fine, not close at all. He was raised downstate in Riverton, about 10 miles outside of Springfield, and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But Allgaier is as close as there is to a local in either of this weekend’s downtown NASCAR races, the Xfinity Series’ Loop 121 on Saturday and the Cup Series Grant Park 220 on Sunday. One of the most successful drivers on the Xfinity circuit, Allgaier is the only regular driver in either race who hails from the great state of Illinois.

Does that mean we all have to root for the No. 7 Camaro on Saturday?

Why, yes, it does.

“That sounds great to me,” he said. “Being the only driver from Illinois really does make it feel like this is home turf. Even though I didn’t grow up or live in Chicago, I really hope the folks from Chicago can get behind and appreciate the fact that, for me, this is important.”

Look, Allgaier, 37, isn’t perfect. For one thing, all evidence points to him being a St. Louis Cardinals fan.

“For the risk of Chicago fans not cheering for me, I’ll leave that neutral,” he said. “But I think you can probably gather where that stands.”

Allgaier raced full-time in the Cup Series, the highest level for stock cars, in 2014 and 2015, without a lot of success. His team just never seemed to have the budget or the equipment to hang with the big winners.

“We were almost like the Cardinals of 2023, unfortunately,” he said. “You might have moments of greatness, but it just wasn’t where you needed to be at.”

Eight seasons of Xfinity racing, on the other hand, have brought 20 wins — the most recent coming last month at Charlotte — as well as five top-four playoff finishes and a 2018 regular-season championship. Allgaier ranks third in this year’s points standings, which is where he finished in 2022.

One stop he always used to look forward to was the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, but NASCAR stopped racing there after the 2019 season.

“When Joliet was taken off the map, that bothered me a lot,” he said. “I was super bummed about it. I’m from Illinois, and that hurt. Those were huge opportunities for us to be part of something bigger than racing, to have all the people that support us — family, friends, customers — come out and be with us.”

Allgaier will have his wife, his parents, other family members and many friends in attendance this weekend. Boy, would he love to win this one.

“This race is huge,” he said. “I have a lot of pressure on myself. Having what feels like a home race, the opportunity to race at home, yeah, I put a lot of pressure on myself. Personally, I have a lot of stress and a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that we rock it.

“But, in the grand scheme, I think everybody wants to be the first to win on a new race course. This is a big opportunity for all of us.”

Allgaier was asked about the rest of the state’s sometimes complicated relationship with Chicago. Not everyone in and around Springfield, as he is aware, has the warm-and-fuzzies for our city.

“I think some of that is just fear of the big city,” he said. “I grew up in a small, small town — 600 people, 800 people — and some of it is just because there’s such a vast difference in the amount of people. No matter your political stance, or whether you like city or country, Chicago is just so huge and different from anywhere else.”

There are lots of things Allgaier likes about this big ol’ place we call home.

“Growing up in the ’90s, if you weren’t a Chicago Bulls fan, you didn’t like basketball,” he said.

The racing might be pretty OK, too.

“Listen,” he said, “if you would have told me there was ever a shot at racing in a city, I would have never, ever, ever, ever have said that it was going to be Chicago. The logistics alone of making this happen are truly incredible. NASCAR still has its niche areas, but to expand to people and areas it’s never been to — to bring it all to Chicago — that makes me really, really happy.”

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