Chase Elliott did not mince words when describing his admiration for crew chief Alan Gustafson and the influence he has had on him since Elliott moved to the NASCAR Cup tour full-time in 2016.
Despite Elliott’s lineage, success at stock car’s highest level did not manifest overnight. But after five years of building on a foundation Gustafson established by working with Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, Elliott reaped the benefits.
The solidarity of Elliott’s relationship with Gustafson came to fruition on Sunday night at Phoenix Raceway with the team’s first championship.
“The bottom line about Alan is he wants it more than you, and he's going to work harder than you to go get the job done, period,” Elliott said. “He's an intense guy, and he's going to outwork you to get it done. I guarantee it.
“I've seen that for a long time, and I'm very, very glad that he can quit and be done and be a champion because I don't deserve shit, I don't feel like, but I feel like if anybody deserves anything, it's him. I'm very proud of him for that.”
Martin would second that emotion. Although he lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson in 2009, Martin enjoyed one of his career-best seasons under the direction of Gustafson. After Sunday's race, Martin tweeted, “I am so incredibly happy for Alan Gustafson. Unbelievably hard working and really smart guy. He gave me one of the best years of my career. Congratulations @chaseelliott @TeamHendrick”
Before turning over the reins of the No. 24 team to Elliott, Gordon enjoyed a resurgence late in his career with Gustafson at the helm. The four-time champion advanced to the final four in 2015 and ended the season third—his best result in six years. Gordon, who relinquished his spectator seat at Sunday's season finale so Elliott’s friends and family could attend, called team owner Rick Hendrick and the driver of the No. 9 Chevy to congratulate them and Gustafson after the race.
“There were only so many spots, and Jeff was gracious enough to stay back home,” Elliott said. “Just really appreciate him calling and reaching out and saying what he did. It's a big moment for both of us.I think it's kind of unique and special for he and I because we both work with Alan, and he had a run at a championship with Alan, and things didn't work out.
“I just think he's probably one of very few people that respects AG the way I do and believe in him like I do. So I think he just knows how big of a deal it is for him.”
Elliott enjoyed winning seasons in 2018 and 2019. Although he has qualified for the Playoffs since graduating to the Cup Series, this is the first year Elliott advanced to the Championship 4 round. And the team did so in dramatic fashion by winning Nov. 1 at Martinsville Speedway and vaulting over this year’s most victorious driver, Kevin Harvick, to earn one of the coveted four spots.
Although the No. 9 Hendrick team failed pre-race inspection twice on Sunday morning and Elliott was forced to start from the rear of the field, neither he nor Gustafson flinched when faced with the task at hand.
Johnson experienced a similar situation in 2016 when he won his seventh and final title. He sent a text to Gustafson and Elliott recounting the experience prior to the race and touched base with his teammate before the drivers went to their cars.
“I reminded him, I've been there,” Johnson said. “Of the championships I've won coming from the back, I had less nervous energy in my body when I took the green flag, and it was very easy what I needed to do. I shared that with him, and he smiled and he said, ‘I hope that's how it goes today.’ And it did.
“We didn't think of it as a passing of the torch, but I tried to share some of my experience with him before the race. He doesn't need my help. He's plenty good on his own. I'm glad it worked out for him.
“At the end of the day it's really the driver and the crew chief and how they want to conduct business. Alan and Chase have a great relationship. They know what they need out of each other.”
Certainly, Elliott’s maturation over the last five years has helped. Although he entered the Cup tour having won an Xfinity title, the gap in the level of competition between the two series is immense. But Gustafson realized he had a diamond in the rough before Elliott was officially his driver. Gordon had a previous engagement, so Elliott filled in at a test.
“From the time he showed up, he was ready to win,” Gustafson said. “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.”
When faced with a must-win situation in the last two races of the season, Elliott did just that.
“I think that the whole team has come along that journey with him, and that's what I see the difference,” Gustafson added. “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.”
And the driver believes in Gustafson as well.
“He's been a championship crew chief for a long time,” Elliott said. “It just took until today to actually have the title next to his name. Man, I'm proud of him. I wouldn't want to go to war with anybody else.”