Chase Elliott won three times in 2018 and his crew chief Alan Gustafson is focused on building on that foundation in the coming season.
Elliott scored his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen last summer in what turned out to be the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s breakout year. He followed suit with two more wins and went deep into the Playoffs before finally being eliminated.
Gustafson is confident the performance last year by Elliott and the No. 9 team will transfer into the new campaign.
“Yeah, we just have to keep working hard and put good, fast cars on the track,” Gustafson said. “I think that is going to do it. Where the momentum came from at the end of 2018 was performing and you’ve got to perform to start the season. If we do that, I think it will carry over.”
Audio: Gustafson on “NASCAR Live”
While the landscape will change dramatically in 2019 thanks in no small part to the new rules package Cup teams will see rollout once Daytona is in the rear view mirror, Gustafson says there remains a constant from last year’s effort.
“It’s the same, it’s to win,” he said. “If you can win early and often that is always a good thing. We will try to do that. Winning gives you the leverage to put yourself in good position to qualify for the Playoffs. If we can do that and we can push even that much harder and you don’t have to be conservative with some calls and adjustments. Just focus on winning and performing.”
The Gustafson-Elliott combination enters its fourth season. During that period Gustafson has watched his young driver evolve both on the track and off. There have been challenges along the way to be sure as well as successes and Gustafson is impressed with how well Elliott has adapted during the maturation process.
“He doesn’t take anything that really isn’t his real estate or force people in bad positions,” Gustafson explained when asked about Elliott’s driving style. “I think he has been taken advantage of a few times because of that and I think that has frustrated him. I’ve seen that change in him. He certainly races some people that kind of consistently have not given him the same respect he has adjusted how he races them. I think that is a good thing and a good idea. Certainly, helps his performance.
“You can’t consistently come out on the bad end of deals or altercations or whatever. He has adjusted to that and I think that is something I certainly see from him. That process has given him a little bit of an edge. I think the people now he has raced the guys that run up front pretty much every week enough where they know what he is and what he’s about. I certainly think they know he is going to be there week in and week out, they better think twice if they are going to do something that might be a little bit questionable.”
After two seasons of going winless, Elliott’s first trip to Victory Lane was not surprisingly a very popular win with the NASCAR fan base. But Gustafson believes finally breaking through wasn’t due to doing anything differently than what the team had done all along and plans to continue doing in 2019.
“There wasn’t one thing,” Gustafson said. “We didn’t wake up one day and said, ‘this is what we were missing’. We just got a little bit every day. We’ve got to maintain. That is part of the strategy. That part of our game plan can’t change. We’ve got to keep that philosophy intact, but we’ve always got to push ourselves to be better.”