Alan Gustafson

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After being ‘beat down’ by superspeedways, Alan Gustafson gets first win

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Coming off the first off-week of the season, crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 9 team at Hendrick Motorsports had an interesting three-race stretch awaiting them.

The Cup Series would head to Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

The last two tracks hold good memories for Gustafson and driver Chase Elliott. Two of their three wins last year came in the playoff races at Dover and Kansas. The 1-mile Dover is also the site of Elliott’s best average finish (4.3) through six starts.

“Probably of the three, I was most looking forward to Dover,” Gustafson said Sunday.  “I just love Dover, because when you win Dover, you’ve done something.  That’s a tough, fast track.  There’s no place to hide.  There’s no way you can get away with not being on the edge all day.”

But they had to go through Talladega to get there.

“I was looking forward to coming here,” Gustafson said. “I mean, you get a little beat down after doing it for so long, not getting the results, how fickle it can be.  Certainly don’t want to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming here.  You’re a bit cautious with your expectations because this place can bite you in a second.”

Elliott’s win Sunday at Talladega came in Gustafson’s 58th Cup points race on a superspeedway, with 29 each at Talladega and Daytona.

In those races, the first being the 2005 Daytona 500, Gustafson has worked with the likes of Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Elliott.

Outside a win in a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 2018, Gustafson had come up one spot short of victory lane three times at superspeedways.

The closest he came was in the July 2007 race at Daytona, when Jamie McMurray edged Busch by .005 of a second to steal the win.

Nearly 12 years later, a day that saw an increased amount of coordination among Chevy teams, ended with Elliott leading 45 laps (his most on a superspeedway), including the final four, to score the win.

In addition to Gustafson and Elliott’s first Cup superspeedway wins, the victory ended a seven-race stretch of Ford wins at Talladega. It also was Chevy’s first Cup win of the season.

“We needed to win this,” Gustafson said. “We needed to consolidate our efforts.  We needed to break the streak that one of our rivals has here. … (Crew members at Hendrick have) worked really, really hard.  Really haven’t had the results to pay off their efforts.”

Chase Elliott celebrates his first Cup win of 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ first on a superspeedway since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July 2015 race at Daytona.

“Just thinking back a year or so, we’ve been so close to winning one of these (superspeedway) races for so long, haven’t been able to do it,” Gustafson said. “Happy for them we were able to get that done today.”

Elliott noted that it was “pretty cool” to get Gustafson’s first superspeedway win, but he observed that “a sticker is a sticker, the Playoff points are what they are.  I think it’s important to rack them up as early as you can, as long as you can keep stacking on top of it.”

While the No. 9 has been to victory lane four times in the last 25 races, Elliott doesn’t think they’re “winning often enough.”

“I feel like we need to be contending more,” Elliott said. “I see some of our competitors being in contention more than we have been throughout the season.  I think we can certainly do a better job.

“To have a win this early in the year I think is nice. And just because we won at Dover and Kansas last year doesn’t mean we’re going to go run good there, too. You know that.

“It’s going to be hit‑or‑miss.”

Long: Chevrolet victory went just as planned at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — A fan arrived to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend carrying flowers to his seat, looking for the woman he has dated online but never met in person.

In much the same way, Chevrolet teams came to NASCAR’s longest and most ferocious track, agreeing to help each other in ways they’ve never done amid questions to if they could actually do it.

The fan, Omar, was to meet his date, Amber, at the track. At last report, he had yet to find her.

But Chevrolet teams made an instant connection Sunday, fortifying the bottom lane and outmaneuvering Fords and Toyotas for a 1-2-3 finish led by Chase Elliott’s fan-pleasing, drink-raising victory at a track his Hall of Fame father Bill Elliott reigns as the fastest man. Chevrolet, which scored its first win of the season, had five of the top six finishers.

“Every Chevy driver was all in on it and all in on trying to get a Bowtie to win,” runner-up Alex Bowman said.

They had little choice.

Hendrick Motorsports’ decision to work with Toyotas instead of fellow Chevrolet teams in the Daytona 500 put this weekend’s plan in motion.

“That’s kind of what pushed us to be a little bit more firm I’d say with the teams,” said Pat Suhy, Chevrolet Manager of NASCAR Competition Group.

Chevy executives met with drivers, crew chiefs, technical directors and directors of competition Saturday, then met with crew chiefs and team executives afterward to formulate the race plan. Sunday morning, Chevy executives met with crew chiefs and spotters to finalize the plans and make sure all were onboard.

The message was clear.

“Look, we all know you know that there is power in numbers and we know that you’d like to be able to pick your dance partners,” Suhy said Chevy officials told teams. “We’re going to ask you — maybe some would say we told them — very firmly to work together as a group of Chevys and see how that works out.”

Drivers understood.

“We all have egos and we all think we’re a tick better than the guy we’re sitting next to, but we were all able to put that aside and focus on the betterment of our manufacturer,” fifth-place finisher Daniel Hemric said.

The Chevrolets worked together throughout the race. Bowman’s spotter, Kevin Hamlin, even referred to fellow Chevy cars as “friendlies” throughout the race. Chevrolet drivers pitted together under green and often ran the bottom lane together. The cohesion among the Chevy camp impressed those who tried to beat it.

“It’s harder than ever to stay in a line,” said fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, the only non-Chevrolet driver in the top six. “When you’re in line you’re running three-quarter, half throttle, you’re just waiting to go and cars are really tight and packed up. I was surprised to see how much that worked for them.”

There were numerous instances of Chevy drivers helping each other and letting them in line off restarts. Typically in the final laps, the orders go away and everyone understands it’s each driver for themself.

Yet on the final restart with four laps to go, Elliott, starting on the inside of third row, slowed to allow fellow Chevrolet driver Kurt Busch to come down from the top line, hanging his brother, Kyle, out and moving in front of Elliott.

“If it had been a green‑white‑checkered, I don’t think it would have been favorable,” Elliott said. “I think having it be more than three laps, I felt like there was going to be enough steam and momentum up to where the pack was going to be kind of back to normal.

I felt like there was going to be some power in numbers with it being that many laps to go. That’s what we did. I was really trying to stay with him and trying to stay the course on all that, be the best friend I could be at that point in time. He went to make a move on Joey. Honestly, I couldn’t get up there to push him fast enough. If I did, somebody else behind me probably wasn’t going to do the same. At some point that was going to hurt.

That’s just kind of the way it goes. You have to realize the shoe could be on the other foot next time. It’s not always going to work out for everybody. I get that. It’s easy for me to say today. That’s just the way it’s going to be at these places.”

Although Kurt Busch fell to sixth, he was “impressed” with how the Chevrolet drivers worked together.

“I feel like Chase did a perfect job to put himself in a good position,” Busch said. “I feel like I just gave the win away. I had a run and didn’t change lanes quick enough and got bottled up. Chase was a perfect wingman and in a great spot. I’m happy that Chase got the win today.

“I’m really disappointed that I didn’t close the deal. It was in my hands and I let it fall through.”

For a time this weekend at least, a fan holding flowers waiting for his date, could understand Busch’s feelings.

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Chase Elliott looks to build upon last season’s success in 2019

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There’s no question 2018, his third full season in the Cup Series, was a breakthrough year for Chase Elliott.

The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott not only won his first career Cup race (Watkins Glen), he followed that up with two more wins at Dover and Kansas. Even with those wins, Elliott finished sixth in 2018, as compared to finishing a career-best fifth – yet winless season – in 2017.

Still, as he approaches the 2019 Cup season, the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 Chevrolet  is ready to build upon last season’s performance.

“It’s kind of a fresh start in a lot of ways,” Elliott said. “I think definitely there was nothing negative about the wins and things.

“I obviously wish we could have finished a little stronger those last handful (of late season races), but it’s hard to piggyback off of a win and the month of, what was it, September (or) October and then continue that in the end of February. But we’ll try our best and try to get rolling.”

Even with his racing pedigree and lineage, Elliott admits he struggled at times in his first two full-time Cup seasons in 2016 and 2017.

“The first two, I had some ups and downs, (with) obviously last year being the best of the three,” Elliott said. “It’s kind of hard to believe that this will be year four. It’s gone by really fast.”

MORE: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

Elliott — who won his first NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award after last season — is also entering his fourth Cup season with crew chief Alan Gustafson.

I have a lot of confidence in him, and (it’s) nice to feel from his end it’s mutual,” Elliott said of Gustafson. “I think that goes a long way.

“But our relationship really has been pretty simple. As I’ve told a lot of people, I kind of let him do his thing and he lets me do mine, and we really just go about our business that way. Our friendship has grown, I think, over the past couple years.

“We’re by no means best friends. I think he would tell you the same thing. But we work well together, and I think that we enjoy the competition aspect at a similar pace. And, he and I, I feel like, view a lot of things the same way from that aspect. And when you’re working with somebody and you’re in the roles that he and I are both in, I’m not real sure that there’s a much better fit or a better way to go about it.

We keep things very simple or as simple as we possibly can, and we believe in our process of how we prepare for races, and yeah, look forward to doing it some more with him this year.”

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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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2019 Cup Season in Review: Chase Elliott

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Chase Elliott

CREW CHIEF: Alan Gustafson

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports

POINTS: Sixth

WINS: Three (Watkins Glen, Kansas II and Dover II; first three wins of Cup career)

LAPS LED:  325 (Down from 560 in 2017)

TOP 5s: 11 (Down from 12 in 2017)

TOP 10s: 21 (Tied with 2017 total)

POLES: One (Daytona II; same number as in 2017)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Elliott finally claimed his first Cup Series win in his 99th start in July at Watkins Glen, defeating defending series champ Martin Truex Jr. in a late-race duel … Finished in the top three seven times, including three times before his WGI win … Won two races in the Round of 12 in the playoffs … Won Most Popular Driver award for the first time.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Didn’t win his first stage of the season until the 20th race at New Hampshire … His four DNFs came in both Daytona and Las Vegas races … Was eliminated from playoffs after Round of 8 … His three wins were the only wins for Hendrick Motorsports and the team’s fewest since Ricky Rudd won one race in 1993.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: In Hendrick’s second year with the Camaro, the team should be up to speed quicker and continue to rebuild all of Hendrick Motorsports into a competitive organization.