Friday 5: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

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It wasn’t until Chase Elliott scored his first Cup victory last season that crew chief Alan Gustafson saw the toll that not winning took on his driver.

With high expectations and a large fan following, pressure built on Elliott as his winless drought stretched beyond his rookie year in 2016, then 2017 and past the halfway mark of 2018.

Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race before Elliott. So did Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Erik Jones.

Elliott’s winless drought reached 98 Cup races before his Watkins Glen triumph.

“I think I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personally he was taking it not winning races,” Gustafson said this week. “Once he won, I realized, ‘Wow, it was something that he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’ ”

Elliott scored eight career runner-up finishes before that first victory in August. He went on to win twice more last year (Dover and Kansas in the playoffs).

Those performances showed the growth Elliott has made since his rookie Cup campaign in 2016.

“I guess the best way to describe it,” Gustafson said, “is I can remember when I first worked with him, he was so good at such a young age. ‘Where is his ceiling?’ He seems to be awfully close to it to me. Then kind of a pleasant surprise to me, he’s been able to push that ceiling, he’s made some significant growth and improvement.

“I think it stems from going to these races … knowing what line works. What line is good for this or how did this guy win the race … all these little nuances that you get from experience.”

The result was that Elliott was one of three drivers to win twice in the playoffs last year — champion Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also won twice in the playoffs.

“I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants, he will win the race with it,” Gustafson said. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome.”

2. Will IndyCar knowledge help Chevy thrive in Cup in ’19?

There are so many questions entering this season with what the racing will be like under the new rules package. Some questions will start to be answered at next week’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even then there will be much uncertainty.

For Chevrolet, this could be daunting after its struggles last  year. The car manufacturer won four races a year ago — its lowest total since 1982 — and last had a car race for the Cup title in Miami in 2016.

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, notes how the manufacturer’s IndyCar program could help its NASCAR teams with this rules package that has tapered spacers reducing horsepower and downforce added to the cars.

“We’ve been able to take a lot of what we’ve learned in IndyCar, where you are power limited,” Suhy told NBC Sports. “If you look at last year and really years past, we just piled on as much downforce as we could and you would always go faster, but when you’re power limited with the tapered (spacer) 550 (horsepower) engine, when you’re power limited, you have to start making decisions about how much drag you’re willing to accept for a downforce gain. It’s really more about trading off straightaway speed for cornering speed.

“We’re in a really good position to help answer that question with some of the tools that we have developed and used week in and week out in the IndyCar Series. We’ve been able to bring that to our NASCAR teams.”

3. JTG Daugherty Racing making changes

JTG Daugherty Racing will be more closely aligned with Hendrick Motorsports this season, according to Ernie Cope, JTG Daugherty Racing’s director of competition. JTG Daugherty Racing will receive Hendrick engines, use Hendrick simulation and have Hendrick pit crews service the cars of Chris Buescher and rookie Ryan Preece.

JTG Daugherty Racing also has purchased five chassis for Daytona from Hendrick Motorsports. The rest of JTG Daugherty Racing’s fleet will be built in-house. Cope told NBC Sports that Car No. 10 was on a surface plate this week. 

Car No. 1 will be used for wind tunnel testing. Car Nos. 2-3 will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Cope said the organization plans to have new cars for all the races through Texas, which is the seventh race of the season.

Why build their own chassis?

“Part of it is you control your own innovation and destiny and when parts are coming,” Cope said. “We control our own production schedule. I think it’s going to work out fine.”

4. Chatting with the new guy

Clint Bowyer admits he didn’t know Daniel Suarez well before Suarez signed to drive the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing starting this season. A recent sponsor appearance together in Texas gave them the chance to talk on the flight.

“Man, it’s fun to be around kids like that are full of talent, full of piss and vinegar,” Bowyer said. “He’s set on kill. He’s excited about his opportunity, as he should be. He’s in good equipment. I know the equipment he’s going to be sitting in, the team that he’s going to be with. They were on fire last year with Billy Scott and all those guys. He’s got a good future ahead of him for this year. I’m excited for him.”

5. Fans in the Cup garage

Details are being finalized, but look for the Cup garage to be open to fans at a select time on some race weekends. This has been done in the Xfinity and Truck Series and will expand to Cup this season.

How tracks offer this to fans, how many fans will be allowed in, what time and what day this will take place on a race weekend will be set by tracks and NASCAR.

The tentative Daytona Speedweeks schedule lists an open Cup garage for fans from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 10 — the day of the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. The Cup garage also is listed as being open to fans from 4-6 pm ET at Daytona on Feb. 14, the day of the Duel qualifying races.

A spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway told NBC Sports that track officials are developing their plans for this and don’t have anything to announce at this time.

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