By: Ashley McCubbin
Since his first race on the pit box as a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, Alan Gustafson has gotten to work with some of the biggest names, including past NASCAR Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. However, through their time together over the past 15 years, he was unable to secure a title of his own.
That all changed on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway as Gustafson secured his first Cup Championship with Chase Elliott.
It has not always been easy sailing for the pair, with many questioning whether they were the right fit together and the Florida native could get the job done for the prodigy. Some critics even called for him to removed from the pit box after a couple strategy calls took away victories.
However, the pair ignored everyone else, staying true to their course and trust for each other.
“I think I’m his biggest fan,” Gustafson stated of Elliott. “His abilities, his intelligence, the quality person he is, he’s top‑notch all the way around.”
The confidence was there even before the pair knew they’d be put together, with Gustafson impressed by Elliott during a test session at Nashville, where he filled in for Jeff Gordon. Though it was about finding a trust in each other, which ultimately came from going through the tough moments together.
“There was so many races I felt like we should have won and were in position to win, and it’s almost like we were keeping ourselves from winning or obsessing over too much and not just being natural and doing what we know we can do and execute and just have confidence and trust in ourselves,” he explained. “That’s what I see that’s changed. I think that he now trusts in his ability and he is very decisive and he doesn’t second‑guess himself and he doesn’t race not to lose but he races to win.
“I think that the whole team has come along that journey with him, and that’s what I see the difference. He’s obviously improved, but he’s not that much different of a driver really than he was when he was a rookie. He’s certainly gotten better, and laps help, and he knows the lines and knows when he’s out of his car and the intangibles on and off pit road and the pit box and all those different things. But I think just the confidence in being extremely decisive and going out to win instead of going out not to lose is the difference.”
While Gustafson may credit his young driver for the title, it is a two-way street as it was the experience that allowed him to be the calm force during those final 20 laps, as well as during the pressure situation of win-or-bust at Martinsville Speedway. There’s also knowing what he should do with the adjustments to put him in the best situation possible.
It crept up during the Season Finale 500, when Elliott relayed how the car was handling, but unsure if they should adjust to make it more comfortable.
“Actually that’s a very mature thing to say because I think the point that he’s trying to make is he doesn’t feel like what he needs to make him feel comfortable or the car easier to drive is ultimately going to be the fastest thing to do, and that’s what he’s referring to,” Gustafson shared. “In this situation he was right. If we would have done what ultimately would have made him the most comfortable, we would have not been as fast. He was basically defaulting to me to say, ‘Hey, just make it fast and I’ll do the rest.’ It kind of gets lost in translation, but that’s ultimately what he was saying.”
Being able to handle everything, especially in knowing to offer as much information to Elliott as possible through the final laps, came from that experience, and a conversation with Mark Martin.
“I can remember through that conversation he told me to treat him like a rookie,” Gustafson recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t treat me like a veteran, don’t treat me like I know what I’m doing, just treat me like a rookie and give me as much information as possible and use as much information as you can to influence me and help me move forward.’
“Really, to be honest with you, since that point in time with him, I’ve taken that philosophy. He taught me a pretty valuable lesson. Regardless if it’s Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott, the team, myself, we just try to put the drivers in the best position we can so they succeed and feed them as much information as we can and try to educate them as much as possible and try to put them in a position to put their best foot forward.”