An Interview With: ALAN GUSTAFSON
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by our race winning crew chief, Alan Gustafson. Alan, congratulations, quite a run out there today. Just walk us through that championship winning race.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, what an intense race. Super competitive. Congrats to all the Championship 4 guys. I think that besides us starting in the back, those guys were in the top four, five all day long. Everybody had really fast cars and really competitive. We were really fortunate to come out on top.
I was a little worried there when the 22 got in front of us on that pit exchange, but our car was good enough there at the end to get past him, so it was a really special day.
Q. Obviously you guys had a lot of speed today and you guys have this new coming relationship with ECR. I’ve heard you guys have implemented some things that ECR was using. Was it your engine or ECR’s engine, and how much of an impact did that have?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I certainly don’t know all the details but it was certainly a collaborative effort between ECR and HMS and all the Chevy teams. It’s been a great evolution in our relationship, and everybody is working really well together. I think the performance obviously showed on the track today and I think it’s going to continue to yield good results.
Got to thank certainly Hendrick engines and ECR engines and Chevrolet and all they’ve done to give us a great engine and great package with great durability today, and it was a huge benefit.
Q. Can you just kind of go through pre race tech and what happened?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, certainly it’s unfortunate and I apologize to our sponsors and NAPA and everybody involved. We don’t want to go through that.
We had our left rear quarter top was low and there was a few spots on it, and we had to fix a couple other things. We went around and ultimately worked on the left rear quarter top and tried to get it up.
The rear package (indiscernible) and the quarter top kind of meet there together and it’s hard to get into that quarter top from the trunk or from the inside. We had what I thought was enough and we worked on it, and unfortunately it wasn’t.
It’s tough for us in those situations. There’s just no way to know how much we’ve moved the body panel. You try to go a little more than you think you need to, and we thought we did and unfortunately we didn’t. I hate that that happened. I hate that we put everybody in a bad spot there. Fortunately we got it right for the third time.
Q. I just wondered, how did that leave you guys going into today? Did you think it was really going to be much of a bad headache to start that way? How did you think it was going to play out?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I didn’t. You don’t want to start at the back and you certainly don’t want to give up the first spot. But I didn’t think it was going to be a huge disadvantage.
Then, as the race went on, I started to realize how hard it was going to be to pass. I was like, man, that could have been a huge deciding factor. All the guys in the championship were so fast and so good. It was tough to pass, especially the leaders. It was certainly concerning.
Once we got of got up into the top 5, I realized we’ve got to find a way to get around these guys. It’s going to be hard to do. It’s going to be hard to pass those championship guys and certainly the leader.
Q. I know you have a really talented driver, but could you describe what you have seen out of Chase, particularly over the last two weeks?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, I think I’m his biggest fan. His abilities, his intelligence, the quality person he is, he’s top notch all the way around.
I think just going through those situations and succeeding gives you some confidence to not be indecisive and not second guess yourself and not let doubt creep in when you get into a situation that’s not ideal.
When you go through races that are must wins and championship moments like this, no matter if you do everything perfect, you’re still going to have some adversity to overcome.
I think him being able to win in those moments has given him some confidence to know that he’s certainly good enough to do it. We all know that, and you can hear it, but until you do it, you just don’t know that. I think that now it’s given him that reassurance.
Q. (No microphone.)
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I was not I don’t know how I found out. I’m sure by the time I talked to him it was pretty well publicized, so I wasn’t the person to tell him.
We did talk about it, obviously, and he’s super supportive of us and what we’re trying to do and has a lot of faith and confidence in us, as we do him. It’s just the situation we were in and we had to make the most of it and the best of it.
You know, you never know. I did feel like coming in here, based on how we’ve run over the last three or four years, I know the finishes aren’t there and the stats may not be the best, but we’ve run really good. We’ve had some real tough situations and circumstances, whether it’s knocking a valve stem off in this race last year or speeding on pit road or we got in an accident off of Turn 2 a few years ago. But we’ve just been at the front, we’ve had a lot of speed, a lot of pace. So I had a lot of confidence.
To be honest with you, winning with four different drivers here is cool. I’m super proud of that. I hadn’t won on the new configuration. The old configuration we had a lot of success and hadn’t been able to master this new one. I think it’s finally wore out enough and tires fall off enough that the stuff that we try to do is kind of back in style.
Q. Throughout your career you’ve had the experience of working with some younger drivers and also veteran drivers, and I’m curious as there are a number of younger drivers moving up and certainly your organization is full of them now, can you give me a sense of perspective of working with a younger driver? What are the things you had to do as a crew chief, what are the things the driver has to rely on other people and how that works when they’re relying on other people, trying to get as much information as possible? I’m sure there are some challenges in just how you work with a younger driver and how you work with Chase those early years to build to this moment.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, it’s a bit different, but it’s very similar. I think I learned something when I worked with Mark Martin. We sat down and obviously he had a huge amount of success and we had a long conversation about what we need to do and how we needed to proceed.
I can remember through that conversation he told me to treat him like a rookie. 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.
Certainly you’ve got to give them their individual leeway or attributes or different things they have. Certain guys are good at certain things, but I think you just try to support them as much as you can.
I think we’ve taken that philosophy with Mark and with Jeff and with Chase. To be honest with you, Chase is not a normal 24 year old person, that’s for sure. He’s got the physical attributes and skill sets of a 24 year old, but he’s got the intelligence and the experience of someone much older and wiser, so he acts like he’s a 35 year old in his prime.
He’s very similar to the great champions I’ve worked with before, and he’s going to be every bit as good or better.
Q. Kind of curious, since you’ve been with him through his development in the Cup Series, where have you seen his biggest gains, and what has surprised you the most about him in this short period of time?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: That’s a tough question because when we I can remember we tested with him in Nashville way back in the day. It was years before he even drove our car, but Jeff had to go somewhere. He came in and filled in. Even then he was just getting ready to run Xfinity or was running Xfinity. I was like, Man, this kid is fast, like he’s really good. From the time he showed up, he was ready to win.
The thing that I look back at in the first couple years, 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.
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.
Q. At one point during the course of the race you asked him what he needed, how his car was reacting, and he said, "What do I know, I’ll let you make the decision." At what point do you see his maturation level where he’s comfortable enough to give you the type of feedback that’s necessary to just really get the cars dialed in?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I think that it’s there. I think when you listen to that when you’re at home, you’re like, he’s not giving feedback or he’s not telling us what we need. 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.
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.
Q. Obviously this was a race at a 750 horsepower racetrack, and four of the five wins that you had this year were on those kinds of tracks, obviously these last two weeks particularly. Was there any extra emphasis on this package this year? Obviously the road courses are that package and we’ve seen what this team is capable of there. Did you put any extra stock into this package?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: No. No, I can’t say that we did. To be honest with you, I didn’t realize that statistic until you said it.
I did think our 550 stuff and intermediate stuff was pretty good, and certainly we probably should have won a few more of those races, and we didn’t.
Yeah, I don’t feel like there’s any extra effort put there. I think we enjoy racing those style of tracks and the 750 package and being on the gas and braking and the short tracks in general. I consider this a short track. I know it’s technically probably not called a short track, but that’s what I consider it. So places you’ve got to brake and the car has got to drive good and the tires fall off, that’s just what we most enjoy.
But I certainly think that our 750 stuff was pretty good. There were some tracks that we weren’t very good, but one of them is gone, so I’m happy about that. One of them lost a race, so that’s probably a little bit better for us, too.
Yeah, no extra effort is a long way of saying that we try to win every week. I know that sounds corny but it’s the truth.
Q. This year was obviously unique. What kind of leadership did you feel was asked of yourself this year particularly, and how do you feel like you navigated it? What role did that play in getting to where you are right now?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: The silver lining in this year, and one thing that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed is it’s been really pared down. I have to work on the cars and Tom, my lead engineer, works on the car. My car chief, it’s his first year as a car chief and we all had to work on the car together, the whole team and everybody that goes to the track.
From the truck drivers to all the team members, everybody has got to pitch in and everybody has got to do a lot. It just reminds me of the way racing was when I was growing up as a kid. It just was a small group of people probably working more hours than they should and putting a lot of effort towards trying to have a common goal and win races.
The pit crew, everybody, it’s just a different it was very pared down and all, especially jobs evaporated when the pandemic hit and we went to this schedule.
I have a simple philosophy, I always have, is you just lead by example. Talk is cheap. You’ve got to go do it. You have to set that standard and go do what you want your guys to do, and don’t tell me, show me. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do, and this wasn’t any different.
But it was really intimate with the guys, and I really enjoyed that. I think the whole team did. It brought us together closer and I think also made us stronger. It’s something I think we’ve learned from and will serve us well in the future, is just being able to lean on each other.
Q. Sort of following up on what you were just talking about here, you’ve done the equivalent of hitting two back to back walk off homers to win the championship, to get into the Final 4, then win the championship. Did you feel that this team had it in it the whole time? And how do you feel about your team coming through in this way, back to back with so much on the line?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I absolutely felt like we could do it. You know, I feel like we have performed really, really well. And yeah, I just knew we had to operate at our maximum capacity and do the best job we could.
Did I know we could win two races back to back and win Martinsville and Phoenix? Certainly you believe you can and you feel like you can and you can’t say that you will or can or did until you do it, I guess. I didn’t have any I never lacked confidence in this group or in what we had.
There was a time in the summer that we weren’t very good, and I just knew those were tracks that we just historically weren’t very good at. But the good news is they weren’t in the Playoffs. We just kind of had to battle through those times and not lose our heads and not hit the panic button and just stay true to ourselves and keep pushing forward.
Yeah, I was pretty confident that we could do it. I think this should show it. You’ve kind of got to look a little deeper than wins. But I think if you look past that, our stats are really right on top of anybody else’s, even those guys that have won nine, seven races. Ultimately I think we should have been a little closer than that.
And certainly Charlotte is on me. We should have won that race. And there’s a few others that we should have won, too. Ifs and buts, but we got the one that mattered.
THE MODERATOR: Alan, enjoy the off season.
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