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Source: Racer Magazine

Gustafson still going strong 20 years into his crew chief career

by Kelly Crandall | June 11th, 2024

Alan Gustafson lets out a deep breath and admits time flies.

He is sitting down for an interview about his 20th season as a NASCAR Cup series crew chief. A milestone that even makes Gustafson pause in disbelief at how long this chapter of his career has been.

"It certainly doesn't feel like 20 years," Gustafson said. "It adds up, though."

There is an argument to be made about the rarity of spending an entire career at one organization, and it seems just as rare to put in 20 years in the same position. Gustafson, who turns 49 in August, began his crew chief career in 2005 with Kyle Busch, a rookie for Hendrick Motorsports. He now leads Chase Elliott's team.

Gustafson is not usually a reflective guy, but there is no denying the nearly 700 races called, race wins, and other numbers on the resume. The relationships built over the years and seeing other people Gustafson has worked with for many years also help put things in perspective.

"I think surviving 20 years is a victory in itself," he said. "I really love to do (this). I love the team aspect of it. I love the competition side of it. I love being kind of the tip of the spear. So that's always been my focus, intent, and position I want to be in and hold."

Gustafson's pairing with Elliott has been his most successful and among active teams, the duo is the longest-tenured pair in the garage. Since 2016, they've won 19 races.

"I'm really proud of the relationships (with my drivers)," Gustafson says. "I would like to believe every driver I worked with, if you ask them, we're still good friends and have a good relationship. I feel that way with Chase. We have a great relationship and it still feels very new; it doesn't feel old and stagnant. In any relationship in life, it kind of wears over time, and I don't have that impression or feeling.

"For us to be the longest (tenured) is a bit of a shock because it doesn't feel that way."

With Elliott, Gustafson finally won a Cup Series championship (2020). It’s an accomplishment Gustafson doesn't view as having validated his career, but it's a nice addition to how he's introduced. The search results for Gustafson and his career look good, too, when someone who doesn't know much about him does the research.

"It's the crown jewel, right?" he says. "It's the piece that says, hey, you were good enough to get to the pinnacle and win at that level. It is huge. So, I respect it and understand that, but I guess that's not how I feel (about being validated) from day to day."

Gustafson has won with all but one of the drivers who has driven for him full-time. Casey Mears was the outlier during the 2008 season.

Busch won four times in three years (2005-07); Mark Martin won five races in two years (2009-10; Jeff Gordon won 11 times in five years and nearly captured a fifth championship along the way (2011-15). The addition of the 19 races Gustafson has won with Elliott brings his total to 39.

Gustafson has won 39 races and a Cup title with Chase Elliott. David Rosenblum/Motorsport Images

There should be more consideration and respect for Gustafson regarding his numbers. Not only has Gustafson won with four different drivers, but he and Elliott made the championship race in three consecutive years and have only finished outside the top 10 in points once. (It was last year when Elliott missed races due to a snowboarding injury and then a suspension, which kept them out of the postseason.)

Among the victories on Gustafson's resume are the Southern 500 and Brickyard 400. He's also won at Martinsville Speedway, the track with deep meaning to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.

There are other numbers that Gustafson likes to talk about, though. Gustafson is in the triple digits of top-five finishes (200) and top-10 finishes (345) with his drivers.

"And you're like, 'Wow, hundreds?'" Gustafson laughs. "That's a lot of races and those numbers get to be pretty good. As a competitor, I remember the ones I lost more than I remember the ones I won, and it's unfortunate that's the way it goes."

It should be considered an equal accomplishment to have developed a thick skin. Gustafson is the first in line for criticism when his team doesn't do well. Being the leader of the sport's most popular driver (Elliott) or one of its most successful (Gordon) makes the seat even hotter.

"It took me a while to accept it, but I learned it early," Gustafson says. "The drivers that I've worked with have been good people, and we realized it's in our best interest to support each other. The toughest thing, to be honest, is the fans. I learned that the most with Jeff and his fans.

"This sport is very driver-centric, so the fan base is very driver-centric. Jeff's fans – if we didn't win every week they were asking for your head. That was something that, as much as I loved Jeff, still love Jeff, loved working with Jeff because that was some great years of my career and I really cherished it, yeah that weighed on me. Through that experience, I learned to try to disconnect from it."

You won't find Gustafson on social media. Nor is he one to speak out about criticism unless directly asked and even then, it's with a straightforward tone of the team staying in their bubble.

Over two decades, the sport has changed quite a bit around Gustafson. The most fun but daunting for Gustafson were the days of putting every piece on the car: frame rails, front clips, front clip designs, how the body was hung, upper and lower control arms, spindles and so on. All those decisions are made elsewhere and delivered to race teams to assemble.

"Somewhere in between all of that was a nice spot, and 2014 was my favorite car," Gustafson says. "It has lots of power and downforce and a lot of opportunity to manipulate things."

There have been many times Gustafson has had to reinvent himself through the years from the natural ups and downs a race team can experience. Those are the types of challenges Gustafson embraces, especially when getting the most out of everyone. He also believes it best shows what a team is made of having to go through a slide in performance.

No matter the changes or how much time passes, Gustafson still finds a thrill in racing. Sure, there are times, such as before this interview, when he jokes about how tired he feels, but 20 years will do that to a person.

"My original love was for the technology of the cars, and as I've grown through the transition of my career, you learn the human capital is the most important thing," Gustafson says. "I've learned to really enjoy that side of the role and trying to enable people to reach their maximum potential, and having a team to do that together is what I love about it now."

Gustafson is the second-winningest active crew chief in the Cup Series garage behind Rodney Childers (40 wins), and is one of six active crew chiefs with a Cup series championship.


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