Why the Elliott, Gustafson Combination Works

Everyone at the No. 9 team pushes each other in healthy ways.


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Alan Gustafson, Eddie D’Hondt and Chase Elliott are tremendous complimentary pieces.

It’s why they work well, why they have already captured a championship and why they are poised to challenge for another one this fall. Their victory on Sunday night at Nashville Superspeedway was also reflective of a successful dynamic.

First of all, Elliott doesn’t view himself as a positive thinker.

The 2020 Cup Series champion is a definition realist. It keeps him level-headed during the highs and the lows respectively. That sometimes has been interpreted as a downtrodden attitude or a lack of confidence, especially during stretches where the performance drops or seemingly sure-fire wins got away from them.

There have been stretches where, despite the wins at Dover and Nashville, that Elliott hasn’t been particularly pleased with himself.

"The past month and a half, two months that we’ve had have been horrendous," Elliott said. "I’ve crashed about 10 times and we’ve had a lot of stuff happen to end up having bad finishes, and you never want that ... whether it’s in a string of races or not, you don’t want that, period."

Gustafson never felt like he was in a position to have to play sports psychologist with his driver.

"I don’t feel like I was rebuilding his confidence," Gustafson said after the race. "I was just basically trying to say, 'hey, we’re not going to screw it up anymore, go do your job.'"

That sounds harsh, but it’s the foundation of their working relationship that Gustafson, D’Hondt and Elliott each stay in their figurative lanes. During the battle for the lead, Gustafson and D’Hondt gave Elliott just the bare minimum information he needed about Kyle Busch behind him and trusted the driver to do the rest by feel and sound.

It’s why Elliott had zero pause about doing whatever the voices from above told him to do before the final restart.

The decision to pit or not to pit wasn’t his lane.

"I mean, I let Alan do his thing," Elliott said. "He lets me do my thing, so I’m going to let him do his and just have confidence in that. It doesn’t do me any good to not.

"When I start questioning his decisions, I feel like is when we start going down a road that is not favorable for success. He has had a lot of respect for me and let me do my job and let me approach things a pretty unique way and kind of be me, so I’ve always respected him in return and let him do his thing and just had confidence in whatever that decision is."

That type of relationship is not universal across the roster, but Gustafson also has a mindset that isn’t generally articulated either.

"My philosophy as a crew chief has always been the same -- to always make the driver the weak link," Gustafson said. "If he’s the weak link, then I’ve done my job (and) the team has done their job."

Imagine trying to make Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Elliott the weak links of their race team. That’s an underlying confidence that Gustafson can challenge his drivers over the years in healthy ways without fracturing the trust between them.

So, when things haven’t gone well for a stretch, that isn’t Gustafson blaming the driver, the spotter or anyone on the team, it’s simply an effective rally cry.

"With Chase, (making him a weak link) is not an easy thing to do because he’s a pretty strong link and so were, obviously, other guys that I’ve worked with. So that’s what I try to do. I’m not going to use the words that I used with him, but basically, I said ‘We’re done messing up and we’re going to get after it, so stick with us, bring your A-game."

He brought his A-game on the restart just inside 100 laps to go, when he drove from ninth to fourth and positioned Gustafson to make those pivotal calls in the final laps.

It’s why his hearty fan base can start looking ahead to the final 10 races after the first 17 of the Next Gen era.

Elliott has two wins, which in this extreme moment of parity is good for a four-way tie for the most in the Cup Series, while also tied in playoff points with a 30-point championship lead. That’s all good, but true to form, Elliott isn’t getting ahead of himself and thinking about a third consecutive championship race appearance.

"I don’t think any cushion is safe in the playoff thing unless you have six or seven wins like some guys have over the last couple years," Elliott said. "At that point then you’re probably feeling much better about it.

"But I don’t think two and just a couple stage wins is going to give you the confidence to make dumb decisions in the beginning of the playoffs."

The year Elliott won his championship, he didn’t even have to go through nine-race winner Kevin Harvick to get there in the championship race because he was eliminated in the previous round. Toss in the context of a more level playing field with the Next Gen car and Elliott isn’t preparing for any parades in Dawsonville yet.

"I think everybody is vulnerable when the playoffs start, especially as the rounds progress," Elliott said. "We have seen guys with those big cushions not make the last round. So, I don’t think anything is guaranteed. You certainly want to hedge your bet in that direction as much as you can, and every win helps that, every stage win helps that. That’s something I want to achieve.

"We’ve never really put ourselves in a position like that to where we have a big cushion and we’re able to kind of cruise through rounds. I feel like we’ve always had to scratch and claw for each found, which is fine, and I’m okay with that, but it would be nice to rack up some wins and hedge your bet more so for a potential bad day or something out of your hands."