Alan Gustafson

Poll: Vote for NASCAR’s greatest driver

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On Friday, NASCAR.com revealed the results of poll it conducted with 19 Cup drivers that covered six categories.

Among the topics drivers were polled:

# Greatest driver of all-time

# Driver who will win the 2020 championship

# Best active crew chief

We decided to take those questions, tweak them a little bit and pose them to you.

Greatest Driver of All-Time

With 37% of the vote, Jimmie Johnson‘s peers voted him the greatest NASCAR driver to grace the track, besting four other choices: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Kyle Busch and David Pearson.

We’re giving you one more option in our poll, with the addition of four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

 

2020 Cup Championship Pick

The 19 drivers polled by NASCAR.com voted Denny Hamlin as their choice to win the title with 53% of the vote. Kevin Harvick got 47%.

We’re opening the choices to the current top 10 drivers in the Cup point standings, plus an “other” option.

 

Best Crew Chief

Behind every great driver is a crew chief calling the shots. NASCAR.com’s poll saw Rodney Childers, who works with Kevin Harvick, voted best crew chief with 63% of the vote. Second place, Chris Gabehart (Denny Hamlin’s crew chief), received 16%.

Who do you think is the best crew chief who can be found in the Cup Series garage?

Friday 5: Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart are NASCAR’s dynamic duo

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It’s too soon to anoint greatness but what Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart have done is remarkable.

Thursday night’s victory at Kansas Speedway was their 11th in 52 Cup races together, a remarkable 21.2% winning percentage.

This from a driver who went winless in 2018 and heard the whispers that his future at Joe Gibbs Racing could be in jeopardy. But Gabehart joined the No. 11 team last year, created a winning expectation and reinforced it not only to the team but to Hamlin.

When Hamlin said last fall at Phoenix that he wouldn’t base the success or failure of his season on if he advanced to the championship race, Gabehart texted his driver upon hearing the comment and told Hamlin to expect more of himself.

It’s that mentality that has led to such a strong beginning for Hamlin and Gabehart.

“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.

“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.

“That relationship really works well. We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.”

What they’ve done ranks among the best starts for a driver-crew chief pairing in recent years.

Crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5% winning percentage). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%).

The main difference is that Childers and Harvick won a title in their first year in 2014, and Stevens and Busch won the championship in 2015 in their first year.

Hamlin and Gabehart might have joined them last year in their first full season together but an aggressive call by Gabehart backfired. A large piece of tape placed over the front grille overheated the engine and forced Hamlin to pit. He never got a chance to race for the lead because the pit stop had put him too far back.

Hamlin and Gabehart rebounded by winning the next points race, this year’s Daytona 500.

When the duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson was mentioned to Gabehart after Thursday’s race, he quickly demurred at any such comparison.

“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period.  Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.

“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category.  That’s not for me to do.  I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.

“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.

“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win.  Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.”

What stands out about Hamlin and Gabehart is the variety of tracks they’ve won.

They’ve won on a short track, on a 1-mile track, on a track between 1 and 1.5 miles and on tracks 2.5 miles. This isn’t a team taking advantage of a setup at one particular track but showing strength everywhere.

“I think he believes in his race team,” Gabehart said of Hamlin. “That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.

“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”

2. Reward for a long night

William Byron raced without crew chief Chad Knaus at the track, overcame a pit road penalty, fought a car’s handling throughout the night, yo-yoed through the field on pit strategy and ended Thursday night with a 10th-place finish that put him in a playoff spot with seven races to go.

William Byron (24) finished 10th and moved into the final playoff spot Thursday night at Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Byron entered the race two points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot. Johnson was collected in a crash and finished 32nd, falling out of a playoff spot. Byron took his place. Byron leads rookie Tyler Reddick by 10 points for the final playoff spot.

Byron did all that with Knaus remaining in Charlotte for the birth of his second child. Keith Rodden, a former crew chief, was on the pit box for Byron on Thursday night.

“We had a crazy night,” Rodden said in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “Car was super loose for William to start. Guys battled hard. Made a ton of adjustments. I mean, we made huge adjustments. It took three to four stops to make the car right.

“Did a little strategy to get out front. Then probably got a little too aggressive on that last (pit) call, taking two. We needed to control the restart and move on and have it run green and it didn’t. You hate to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s a good run for us considering how we started and hopefully a momentum builder as they head into Loudon (New Hampshire on Aug. 2).”

3. Preparing for the unknown

It is less than a month before NASCAR races on the Daytona road course for the first time. The Cup Series races there Aug. 16. Even though it is new to the series, drivers will have no practice before the race.

Another challenge is that the course isn’t set yet. NASCAR is expected to add a chicane off Turn 4 of the oval to slow the cars down the frontstretch before they turn into the infield portion of the course.

Just as challenging is preparing cars for that race. That’s what crew chiefs face.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson and Chase Elliott. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “You’re not going to have any references really. Certainly there are some characteristics of the Roval, but it’s obviously a bigger oval and the speeds are going to be higher. The infield is pretty unique. In my experience, a million years ago road racing there, it’s a track that’s hard to get ahold of.

“That infield is not the easiest to navigate and get the car hooked up on. It’s going to present some unique challenges. Certainly the speed of the banking, it’s a pretty dedicated true chicane unlike what we’ve run at the Roval. That will be different for everybody to get a hold of.”

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell, said he expects the inaugural Daytona road course race to be “about as challenging as the (Charlotte) Roval was.”

Cup teams had multiple test sessions before he race weekend at the Roval and then multiple practice sessions that weekend to prepare for the first race there in 2018.

I think the biggest concern right now, the biggest difference that I see right now from the Roval to Daytona is the entry speed into Turn 1 is going to be huge (into the infield road course),” he said. “I don’t know if we can keep brakes on the car for 10 laps if they don’t do something, but they’re working on it.”

4. Now what?

For the first time since NASCAR returned on May 17, Cup teams will have a Sunday off.

So what to do on a free day during a pandemic?

“You get an idea and go down that path and that doesn’t work,” Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve been going over to the lake a lot and I enjoy that. But it’s like, I want to go somewhere different, I want to take my family somewhere. The kids are fixin’ to go back to school or whatever the heck that’s going to look like. It’s just hard, you know.

“Camping. I love to camp, you know, we camp every weekend anyway. And it’s kind of funny to say, oh, let’s take the bus and go camp somewhere. We were going to do that. Good luck finding a campground somewhere you can get into to do that. I would say we’ll probably end up back over at the lake. It makes the most sense.”

Erik Jones says he will head back to Michigan for his best friend’s wedding. Jones is the best man.

“A little bit different wedding than what we all were planning on, but still going to get to do it,” he said. “Little different, but it’s definitely nice to have this coming up. We’ve been working really hard between the doubleheader races and the Sunday and Wednesday races, it’s really been busy for everybody. For the drivers, for the teams – it’s nice to have an off-weekend coming up.”

5. Streakin’

Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April, but he has dominated the sprint and midget car races he’s entered this year.

From early May to earlier this week, Larson had won 21 of 38 races in the various dirt track divisions and had separate winning streaks of eight and five consecutive races.

Larson’s friend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also races sprint cars, provided a perspective on what Larson has accomplished.

“I think a lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, he’s going to a lower series and running and dominating.’ That’s not the case at all. These people, the teams and competitors that he’s racing against are the best of the best in those divisions. In the midgets and USAC we battled hard and he came out on top.

“He’s raced throughout Pennsylvania and raced against our Outlaw teams and what he’s doing is tough to do. It’s not only when you look at the feature wins. I’ve been racing sprint cars over the last few weeks and just thinking back to winning heat races, qualifying first, winning features, battling for wins. …It’s impressive.

“And, I don’t think you’ll see many people be able to go do that in a USAC midget, in Pennsylvania, with the Outlaws; there’s just so much that goes into sprint car racing and what him and Paul Silva have built together and the speed that they have is pretty fascinating to watch and kind of unreal.”

Chase Elliott All-Star win helps make up for some of season’s struggles

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When he’s been good this season, Chase Elliott has been very good, with one win, seven top five and nine top-10 finishes. And now you can add his $1 million win in Wednesday’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway to that list.

“To me, this is one of those prestigious events that the Cup Series only has,” Elliott said after his first career All-Star Race win. “You’re racing against the very best over recent times and anybody’s career that have locked themselves into this event. To beat the best I think is always special.”

But even with the excitement of Wednesday’s win, Elliott was quick to point out that he and his team have also struggled this season – including six finishes of 20th or worse.

“I feel like I needed to hit the reset button, not overthink things, do what I feel is right,” Elliott said. “That’s a hard thing to do all the time. You try to get better, you try to learn. A lot of times you can take yourself down a road, this or that, that may not necessarily be benefitting you.

“But we all want to improve. I certainly have room for improvement. Tonight was a great night for us, but I still think I can do better and there’s areas I can improve on. I’m going to keep working on that.”

In addition to the winner’s check going a long way toward helping his wallet, Elliott was happy to have fans back in the stands. The racetrack capped admission at 30,000 fans — and The Associated Press estimated 20,000 attended —  but it was still the country’s largest crowd at a sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic halted U.S. sports four months ago.

“To me, tonight felt like an event again,” Elliott said. “I feel like we’ve been missing that piece for a couple months. I mean, NASCAR is built on the fans. Once the race starts, it’s hard to engage with them because you can’t hear them. Before a race, the atmosphere was energetic again. I felt like the vibe was back.

“I felt like that fire and intensity in me was back even more so than it has been, a piece that had been missing. I think that’s driven by the people, the cars pulling in, the prerace parties and everything that you see.”

Elliott saw that fan excitement up close, admitting he “snuck up” into the grandstands to watch the All-Star Open, which preceded the main event.

“I’m looking around, seeing all these kids and families, people wearing their respective drivers, a lot of 9 gear,” he said. “You don’t realize how much impact you have on people you never met, you never will meet, who genuinely want to see me do well and they don’t even know me. It’s pretty dang cool to experience that.

“I felt like I had a special night sitting up there with them watching that Open from the grandstands, really seeing and getting back to the roots of what this sport is built on. Then to engage with them after the race, to me it made it mean that much more.”

The All-Star win helped Elliott make up for his disappointing 23rd-place finish last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

But he feels some semblance of redemption to give Hendrick Motorsports its series-record 10th All-Star Race win. And Elliott joins father Bill as the only Cup drivers to win the All-Star Race when it was held somewhere other than Charlotte Motor Speedway. The elder Elliott won the exhibition event when it was held in 1986 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Any race is hard to win, but this is a special race to win, something that locks you in the All‑Star Race for life,” he said. “That’s extremely special to join dad.”

Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had one regret after the race.

“I certainly wish this was a points race,” Gustafson said. “We’ve had a couple races, a stretch, that haven’t been the greatest for us. … That’s the way it goes sometimes, you just don’t get the finishes that you feel like you deserve. That’s certainly the case at Indianapolis (11th) and Kentucky (23rd) and the first Pocono (25th). We have some points to make up.”

Elliott is fourth in the standings, but he’s 100 points behind series leader Kevin Harvick.

Wednesday’s race was the second leg of a string that will see Cup teams compete in four races in 11 days. Next up are Texas (this Sunday) and Kansas (July 23), then there are nine days off before returning to action at New Hampshire on August 2.

“To be honest with you, Texas and Loudon aren’t two of our better tracks,” Gustafson acknowledged. “Those tracks we’ve circled to work hard on and try to improve. I feel like we can. I think we learned some things from Kentucky we can take to Texas. We’re looking forward to putting that to use. Loudon is a place we need to work on. We’ve had some decent runs there. I wouldn’t say we’ve got that one circled as one of our favorites.”

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Choose Rule took ‘funny business’ out of All-Star Race restarts

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The first NASCAR All-Star Race held at Bristol Motor Speedway is in the books and so is the first major NASCAR event with the Choose Rule.

The Cup Series got its first taste of drivers being able to choose which lane they restarted during Wednesday night’s race at the half-mile track.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

After the experiment, drivers asked about the rule had positive reactions.

“I think the thing that it does is it just takes all the question out of where everybody is and who is where,” Kevin Harvick said. “When you get to that line everybody has already made their choice and there’s no funny business of people trying to start in a different lane or do something that they didn’t choose to do. I think that went really well and, for the most part, I don’t think there were any issues.”

The most enthusiastic support came from race winner Chase Elliott.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” he said. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said his team had gone over a “statistical analysis” of the effectiveness of each lane beforehand. He said other than once, Elliott went “against the grain” when it came to lane choice.

“We certainly leave that up to him,” Gustafson said. “He knows what the car’s driving like and what the opportunities are. I don’t think it’s a just absolute monumental change to the sport, but … I’ve been in this situation a lot of times where it’s just really frustrating when you get taken out of an opportunity to race for a win because of a lane.

“There are some tracks, and (Bristol) is one of them, the lanes can get huge amounts of disparity and it kind of sucks when you’re second or third and you get stuck on the bottom and you end up seventh or eighth and you don’t get a chance to race for the win. I do think it gives an opportunity to make it a little bit more fair for the competitors, but I don’t think it’s going to be a monumental shift. It’s probably going to affect a row or two, which you saw tonight.”

After the end of the first stage, Harvick restarted first in the outside lane while Ryan Blaney restarted second on the inside. That was made possible by Elliott going from second to fourth to restart on the outside thanks to the choose rule.

After Stage 2, Blaney did not pit and assumed the lead. Brad Keselowski was first off pit road thanks to taking two tires and chose the outside lane behind Blaney instead of starting on the front row on the inside lane. Elliott was next to choose and selected the front row inside spot, restarting second.

Kyle Busch, who finished second, thought the experiment “worked well.”

“It was kind of interesting how it played out, how a few guys took to it,” Busch said. “Seemed like a lot of times guys were restarting kind of in their positions, maybe one off here or there, but not a whole lot different. There was a time where I think there was like four or five guys that chose the outside, one guy on the inside. I went ahead and took that inside spot. I think I netted out back even again.

“The inside here tonight, for whatever reason, even though the inside is the preferred groove once you get going, it’s such a detriment when you fire off. I don’t know why. It’s just weird. I thought it worked. … Maybe we’ll see it happen more.”

NASCAR penalty report from Martinsville

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NASCAR on Friday issued three penalties to Cup Series teams for violations incurred Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway:

  • Lee Leslie, crew chief of the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford, has been issued an L1 penalty, fined $25,000 and the team has been assessed with the loss of 10 owner points for an at-track penalty (race equipment does not meet applicable specifications during pre-race inspection). The No. 51 car failed pre-race inspection five times.
  • Alan Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.
  • Adam Stevens, crew chief of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.

NASCAR also announced:

  • Team member Zach Yager has successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program and his suspension has been lifted.
  • Team member Josh Young has been reinstated.

There were no other announcements.