King of the Road: Gustafson Has Road-Racing Background
Alan Gustafson, who previously won races while serving as crew chief for Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, has guided fan-favorite Chase Elliott to victory in two of the last three NASCAR Cup Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, Gustafson quickly developed a passion for auto racing at a young age. By 8 years old, he was working on the go-karts of childhood friend Casey Yunick, the grandson of legendary car builder Smokey Yunick.
His talent as a mechanic powered his climb up the racing ladder through Legend Cars, late models and the Sports Car Club of America ranks.
After graduating from high school, Gustafson enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to study mechanical engineering. During college, Gustafson decided to relocate to North Carolina in order to have a better chance at landing a career in professional motorsports.
“I’m competitive. I like to race, but I got away from that at a pretty young age,” Gustafson said. “From a teenager on, I wasn’t that focused or interested in driving myself. I was more interested in the car.”
Gustafson found one opportunity after another – from co-owning a Goody’s Dash Series team to working as a crew chief in the NASCAR Truck Series and an engineer in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
His biggest break came in 2000 when he landed a job as shock specialist for two-time Cup Series champion driver and NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gustafson has been there ever since, eventually becoming the No. 5 team’s lead engineer and then the team’s crew chief in 2005. Since then, he’s worked with an assortment of NASCAR drivers, including Busch, Casey Mears, Martin, Gordon and now Elliott.
The veteran crew chief led rising star Elliott to the most successful rookie season in the past decade with 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10 results at NASCAR’s highest level in 2016.
The duo started that season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and their momentum continued to the end of the year with the No. 24 team earning a spot in the Cup Series playoffs and a 10th-place finish in the series standings.
In 2018, Elliott and Gustafson finally found their way to Victory Lane, winning three times. Last season saw the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team add three more wins, including a dramatic come-from-behind triumph in the second annual Bank of America ROVAL™ 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It was Elliott’s third road-course victory.
“I think it starts with Chase. I think he’s a good road racer,” Gustafson said about the team’s success on the Cup Series’ serpentine circuits. “Where this kind of started in my opinion was we had a test at Watkins Glen in 2016 when he was a rookie. We worked through a lot of things there, and we came up with a package that was really good and really fast, and something he was very comfortable with.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t really perform that well that year (2016), but that test was the basis. That's where we found the speed in the car and were able to generate a package that had a lot of pace, and we’ve just carried that on from that point in time.”
In Elliott’s relatively short time in the Cup Series, he’s won on superspeedways, intermediate tracks, a 1-mile track and has four victories on road courses as he added another this summer at Daytona.
It may not have been clear when Gustafson first teamed with Elliott, but he now calls his driver “the best guy in the series when we go and turn left and right.”
“He does an incredible job, and he’s just really good at it, and he’s phenomenal,” Gustafson said. “It’s nice to be able to come to a track and have the team support and then have the best driver on the grid climb into your car.
“It’s an exciting thing.”
Gustafson may not have envisioned a NASCAR career that would include so much success in road racing but considering his background perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
“I’ve always had a love for it. My best friends growing up still road race. They have a shop and have raced at the highest level, in the 24 hours, and been very successful and won, and yeah, a lot of my roots are there,” he said.
“It’s something I’ve really enjoyed and loved. Any time you enjoy something, it’s a huge benefit. The cars we raced back then don’t have anything to do with what we race now, but I think just embracing it, enjoying it and seeing the positive side of it, all that helps.”
Under Gustafson’s guidance, the No. 9 team has also been impressive on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile quad-oval this year. After seeing an apparent victory in the Coca-Cola 600 slip from his grasp due to a late-race call to pit for tires, Elliott rebounded three days later to win the Alsco Uniforms 500.
“It obviously wasn’t a great feeling,” Gustafson said about his call to pit from the lead during the closing laps of the Coca-Cola 600. “You know, I don’t base my self-worth on other people’s opinions or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great. It was a long couple of days, but at the end of the day you’ve just got to look past it and move on.
“I think you have to be a little bit hard-headed to do this job, and you have to find a way to improve, and you just have to kind of shake it off. Professional sports are super fickle, and one day you’re good and one day you’re terrible, and you just get used to that.”
Now, Gustafson and Elliott turn their attention once again to the NASCAR playoffs and the quest for each of them to win their respective first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
About the Writer: Jim Utter has been the NASCAR Editor for Motorsport.com since July 2015. Prior to that, he spent 24 years as a staff writer for The Charlotte Observer, covering auto racing and regional sports.