Monday, November 2, 2015

Right Sides Only: Notes from Goody's 500 Winning Crew Chief, Alan Gustafson

How excited is the No. 24 team about their first win of the season? Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, wrapped up the team's, and perhaps NASCAR's, sentiments.

"Really, really excited. We knew coming in this was a really big race for us. We put a lot of effort into it, were able to do it. Probably not in the fashion we wanted to, but really proud of the fight and the fortitude of the team to contain and push and push and push and get ourselves in position to win the race.
             
"Huge win. Great opportunity now moving forward for Homestead," Gustafson said.

Of course, Gustafson's excitement was tempered for a few laps when the final caution of the race flew.

"The good news is I think it was timed where it was going to be green-white-checkered. So guys with tires probably couldn't get to us if they got tires in that amount of time. The thing you worry about is a couple attempts.
             
"But I was concerned. I was concerned. I felt like if we were on equal tires to the guys around us, we would win. We could clear Jamie (McMurray), just for the fact of having the inside lane. I think Jamie was pretty good there at the end, but the inside lane is such a big advantage.
             
"Yeah, it was concerning. It always is. From my seat you just hold your breath and watch," Gustafson said. 

Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
The race ended in darkness since Martinsville is one of the few remaining tracks on the NASCAR circuit that doesn't have lights. Tracks change significantly as they cool down, especially as the sun sets. Gustafson talked about the track's condition as it became apparent that the race wouldn't end before the time change reared its ugly head and allowed the last few laps to unfold as the sun went down.
"I think it was cooling down. I'm not surprised. Unfortunately the last at least two years we've struggled to lay rubber here. The first half of the race is really survival until you can get a decent amount of rubber down to where you don't blow the rear tires off the car.
             
"It was no different today. I knew with the overcast, and low track temperature, it was going to be a struggle. Hopefully with the '16 package, we can put a little softer tire to lay rubber down. As you walk across the track, you leave the track, it's pretty wore out. Pretty big aggregate in the track. Chews up tires until you get some rubber down.
             
"I think the reason everybody got tightened up is the track cooled off. Also at the end of the race it's not unusual because the pace picks up. You got to go. You can't be rhythm. Middle of the race it's smooth, rhythm driving. At the end it's not. You got to get to the accelerator really, really fast. That also generates tight conditions. So it's not unusual," Gustafson explained.

As the track temps cooled, tempers flared. Even Gustafson addressed the topic of on-track revenge, following the incident between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano.

"I've been on both sides of it. I mean, it's a tough thing because when it happens to you, you feel like you've been robbed. I don't really know any other way to put it. When you feel that way, not only are you mad and upset, but you feel like you need to stand up for yourself.
             
"When that happens, the most recent one for me is Texas, it's just tough. It's just tough. You kind of feel like you've got to stand up for yourself or it's going to continue to happen.
             
"I can see both sides of it and I've been on both sides of it. I don't have the answers. I'm glad I'm not the guy who has to make that call.
             
"It's part of the sport that's good, the passion and competitiveness. But at the end of the day there's a lot of people who worked really hard, really hard, to put those cars in the position they were in on both sides, in particular on the 20 side and the 22 side. There's a lot of guys that worked countless hours, a lot of guys at the shop, a lot of guys involved with that team that put in tons and tons and tons of effort. They're the ones that are taking it on the chin, in my opinion," Gustafson said.

Now that the No. 24 team has advanced to the final round at Homestead with his first win of the season, Gustafson is more at ease discussing the possibility of a championship.

"We didn't have the season we wanted to leading up. We didn't have the performance. We just knew we had to come together and just fight and claw for eighths, sixths, sevenths, whatever it is, not make mistakes and transfer.
           
"The vision was always to come here with a chance. We knew if we came here with a chance, not only could we win the race, which it ultimately turned out that way, but even coming out of here with a top-five finish was going to be a pretty big boost. You knew some guys were going to have problems. You knew you were going to have a points advantage if you could finish top five. The grand thought was to come out of here with a win, if not, in good points position to move on.
           
"Getting to Homestead, there's a lot to momentum. There's a lot to the positive energy. Everybody I'm sure in our shop will be there an hour early tomorrow ready to go working hard. We have a couple things we've got to do. I think we've got our Homestead stuff, try to get an advantage on that. We can also use Texas to try some new things, try to get more speed.
             
"Anything can happen. We saw that today. I know we can run competitively enough to be right in the middle of the mix," Gustafson explained.
 
For die-hard Jeff Gordon fans, it's been a tumultuous season. With Gordon's impending retirement, fans have enjoyed trips down Memory Lane, remembering his significant wins and championship efforts. They were beginning to wonder whether his final season would be the lone season in Gordon's illustrious career without a win. Fortunately, for the sake of the entire fan base, no one will be left to contemplate such a possibility. 
 
Gustafson addressed those fears.
 
Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images
"To be honest with you, I've thought about this. If I sat here and told you I didn't think about this, I'd be lying. I feel like we're in a good position that we can go there and just put it all in, push it all in, go as hard as we can go, not be tight or calculated.
           
"I almost felt like when you're really, really good, like we were last year, you almost try not to mess it up instead of go win the race. Now I don't have that feeling at all. I kind of feel like we're playing with house money, ready to go. We're a little bit of the wild card. I'm embracing that and enjoying it.
             
"I think that will help keep the pressure off at Homestead. It's going to be crazy. We all know that.  Kind of just have to settle in and understand that. As far as the race goes, just focus on winning and race like you can't lose," Gustafson said.

Judging from the roar of the crowd and reaction from fellow drivers, everyone was a Jeff Gordon fan this weekend. Whether you've been a fan of Gordon's from the beginning or not, the win was one that nearly everyone was excited to see.

"You try to win. You want to win for a lot of reasons. You want to win for Hendrick Motorsports.  You want to win for Jeff surely on his last year. You want to win for our team. You want to win for yourself. There's a lot that goes into it.
            
"I think the thing that's probably been more of an impact on me is just when we haven't performed the way that we want to, the way that I feel like we should, you just feel like you're disappointing people. That's tough. That weighs on you.
            
"You sit there, I don't even know how to describe it, but you just constantly have that over you. Not pressure as much as I don't know how to describe it. It's like your father when you're a kid, you want to please him, do everything you can to make everybody happy. We weren't doing a great job of it.
             
"Hopefully everybody's a little bit happier now, and we can give everybody something to cheer about at Homestead," Gustafson said.

Having punched his ticket to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon is without a doubt the sentimental favorite to win the championship. As his career behind the wheel winds down, winning his fifth championship would simply be one heck of a way to retire.

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   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    Her other interests include country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.
 

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