Last season, the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team put together a solid campaign, with Chase Elliott placing sixth in the year-end standings with three victories. POPULAR SPEED recently caught up with crew chief Alan Gustafson to get his thoughts entering the year and more.
POPULAR SPEED: What are your thoughts going into the season?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Really interested on racing these different rule packages on the different tracks, and seeing how that transpires and what it takes to be successful in that environment. A lot of speculation on that in how you want your car, and ultimately what would be the best configuration for your car to be successful in the new rules, but I think you never really know until you race.
So I’m looking forward to racing and going to those events and learning from it.
PS: What are your goals and expectations?
ALAN: Well for me, it stays the same – trying to win a championship, and to do that, you have to be able to win races and consistently win races and certainly win races in the Chase. That’ll be our focus to have consistently competitive cars that we compete with in the top-five and that we can win with, and be able to refine that throughout the season so we’re strong in Chase. Hopefully we’ll be at Homestead competing for the Championship.
PS: With how things played out last year, where do you feel you and the No. 9 team need to improve to be better?
ALAN: I certainly think we’re going to have a better start to the season. I think we started far off in performance, and had some races that weren’t really well executed and had some bad circumstances that we get the best of us. So we were in a pretty big hole early in the season, and it got us behind. We spent the majority of the season playing catch up.
I think we need to not repeat that mistake and have a stronger start to the season, have stronger performance in our NAPA Chevys and execute better and keep ourselves towards the front, so we don’t spend so much time digging ourselves out of a hole.
PS: What track are you most looking forward to?
ALAN: That’s a tough one. I like the majority of the tracks. I pretty much like all the tracks. Right now, getting to Daytona is at the forefront of my mind, but I guess right now, I’m most looking forward to the west coast swing. I think racing at Vegas, Phoenix and California will give us a good indication of what we have in performance and what we need to improve on.
Once we get through the swing, it will be a really big barometer in understanding where the 9 team is at. So right now I’d say that’s what I’m most looking forward to and I think it’ll change once we get through that stuff.
PS: On the flip side, what is one track that you wish was on the schedule that currently isn’t?
ALAN: If I had to put any track on the schedule that isn’t right now, I’d probably say COTA, Circuit of Americas. I’d love to race there. It looks like a great track. I think our cars would be good on that circuit, and I think that’d be a place to go to. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that a beautiful facility is sitting there and we’re not racing on it, so I’d like to race there.
ALAN: That was a great experience. It was something that was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go over there and be a guest of McLaren and go with them throughout their race weekend at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi. Then to be able to go from there to Bahrain and be involved with Fernando and Jimmie with the car swap, it was great.
I’ve been a Formula 1 fan my whole life and it was my first opportunity to get to a race and to be able to go the race and have so much exposure to do it and so much access to the intimate details behind the scenes at McLaren, and be around it, it was pretty spectacular.
PS: Getting the chance to work with Fernando, what surprised you most about him?
ALAN: He’s a trip. I really enjoyed working with him. I think what probably surprised me most is he’s pretty old school. He focuses on his job and drives the car, and that’s what he really likes to do and he does really well. That’s probably the most surprising thing. Certainly he’s very talented and a good racecar driver, but he’s pretty old school which is kind of funny.
Although, I say that and when he first got into the car, he basically had to ask me what gears were what on the gear shifter. Like, “Where’s first gear?” I’m like, “Man, that’s crazy…” So he didn’t even know the gear pattern. We told him and then two minutes later, he’s on track running 200 mph. He’s a neat guy.
PS: If you were in charge of NASCAR for one day, what is one change you would make to improve the sport?
ALAN: To me, in my opinion, racing is not always going to be – you’re not always going to have Kurt Busch-Ricky Craven finishes like we had at Darlington every race. The one thing that I would do was set those expectations that there’s going to be races that are ultra competitive, and that are going to have fans out of their seats, finishing within inches of each other. Then there’s going to be races where there’s going to be a team with a significant advantage and they’re going to win by five or six seconds. It’s just part of the sport, and I don’t think you’re ever going to eliminate that from the sport.
It’s that way in every sport. There’s football games that are blow-outs, there’s basketball games and hockey games – whatever sport you’re into. So I think the number one thing I would do is set a realistic expectation of what our sport is, and what it needs to be. I feel we need to stay true to who we are and what we do, and understand that’s not always going to get the highest ratings on TV or have the perfect finish. But I feel like that authenticity of being who we are will draw more fans, and more fanbase than trying to have every race be just spectacular.
Then really, if you play forward a little bit, then that becomes the new standard so then what do you do next? It’s a never-ending challenge so I think you just need to be authentic to who you are. I think our racing is great. I think we’ve got a great sport, and let the cars and drivers and teams be the draw and focus on being authentic.
PS: For people out there inspiring to be crew cheifs one day down the road, what would be one piece of advice for them?
ALAN: I think the thing is anybody can do it and I think if you really want to do it, if it’s your dream and your passion, I think you can achieve it. I think my advice is to never quit, never stop chasing that dream, and there’s opportunity all over the place.
All the guys on the 9 team have had different routes and different exposures and different directions to get here, and certainly there’s no one correct path or set stone way to do it. I think the way to do it is be passion about it and pursue that goal relentlessly. If you do that, you’ll make it. You’ll have your shot, and your opportunity to do it.
EMAIL ASHLEY AT firstname.lastname@example.org
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388
The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.