[media-credit id=18 align=”alignright” width=”242″][/media-credit]After a scorching race weekend in Kansas, the Cup Series is at an equally warm Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, PA this weekend. And yet, Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, could not be happier.
“I love the heat,” Gustafson said. “I would much rather be hot than cold.”
“I think mental toughness in the driver and the team comes out under those conditions,” Gustafson said. “And if you’re mentally tough and strong, that will give you an advantage.”
“Obviously the slicker and the hotter the conditions, it is more difficult, but that’s where the best come out,” Gustafson continued. “I do think the hotter conditions also help better cars.”
“When it’s cool, anybody who gets out front is going to be good because the grip is there,” Gustafson said. “But when it’s hot and slick, it doesn’t matter, the good cars get on it.”
“I prefer the heat,” Gustafson said. “I hope it stays hot and gets hotter. I think that will be an advantage to us.”
“I think the relationship is good,” Gustafson said. “Personally we get along really well and the communication’s been good.”
“There has been a little bit of a learning curve knowing his driving style and what he needs in the car,” Gustafson continued. “Early on that was a hurdle that we struggled with and had to get over.”
“But now as of late, I feel like we’ve got a really good handle on what Jeff needs and what he looks for in his adjustments,” Gustafson said. “So, that’s going good.”
“It’s always going to be an evolution for anybody, even if you’ve been together ten years,” Gustafson said. “Tires change and cars change and rules change so you’ve got to continue to work hard and to grow and improve.”
“But I feel like we’re getting to the point where we should be, competing for top-10s and top-fives every week,” Gustafson continued. “We’re getting a whole lot closer to that.”
Gustafson knows that these next few months are going to be critical for his Hendrick Motorsports team. He also knows that driver Jeff Gordon needs to get a few more wins under his belt to make it into the Chase whether by the wild card or on points.
“For me the summer’s the most important stretch of the season,” Gustafson said. “That’s when you’re in a position for the Chase and gives you the momentum in the Chase.”
“We may have struggled early but we had to put ourselves in the position to be going through this summer push and really strong in the Chase,” Gustafson continued. “We’ve got ourselves in a really strong position.”
“But we’ve got to win,” Gustafson said. “I feel like we’re going to get in on points and that’s our goal, but I’d still like at least two more wins. That would put us in really good position.”
Gustafson has been working around the clock on his strategy, especially fuel mileage strategy, to continue to get his driver into Chase contention.
“We work really hard and you have to utilize all hours of the day,” Gustafson said. “I feel like we can work on a little bit of the extracurriculars or the intangibles, like fuel mileage.”
“At Kansas, we had a car to win and things didn’t work out,” Gustafson continued. “As we evolve and improve, not only do we have to have fast cars but we have to have the fuel mileage to go with it.”
Fuel mileage is obviously on Gustafson’s mind, as well as on the minds of all of the crew chiefs as they attack the ‘Tricky Triangle.’
“This is a fuel mileage track,” Gustafson said of Pocono Raceway. “If you’re just working on your fuel mileage now, you’re too late.”
In addition to fuel mileage, crew chiefs and drivers alike will have to deal with another wrinkle at the ‘Tricky Triangle,’ that of being able to shift.
“It’s another variable which we can use and which I like,” Gustafson said. “We can tune to that and it plays to Jeff and good drivers for sure.”
“Shifting is going to change depending on how your car is,” Gustafson said. “If your car is not very good, shifting may be a huge advantage but if your car is really good, shifting may not be that big of a problem or that big of an advantage.”
“I’m glad that NASCAR made the decision to give us that ability,” Gustafson said. “I think Jeff will be really good at it. He’s had the experience of doing it here in the past and he’s really good.”
Another issue on Gustafson’s mind is the new qualifying rules, which sometime entails further strategy, and even some sandbagging, in order to get into the best qualifying order at each track.
“It’s just part of it,” Gustafson said. “It’s very counter-intuitive to me for someone to get rewarded for being slow. I don’t think that’s right.”
“I think NASCAR will look at that, Gustafson continued. “What I would like to see is that the fastest guy chooses when he wants to go in qualifying.”
“That would be really ideal if in the practice, the guy who is fastest gets to choose if he wants to go first or last,” Gustafson said. “Then that way, that takes the sandbagging out of it. I think being rewarded for going fast is the way our sport is built.”
Whether fuel mileage, shifting or qualifying strategy, Gustafson feels very strongly that he, his driver and his No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet team have to have the entire package to win, get into the Chase, and win another championship. He sees several factors, including versatility, adaptability and even perfection, as the most critical.
“It used to be where the strategy didn’t have to be pin-point perfect,” Gustafson said. “Now, you do have to be perfect.”
“I think what it takes to win these races is to be very versatile,” Gustafson continued. “You have to have a fast car and you have to adapt to whatever circumstances come up.”
“Now you have to have a good, fast car and the ability to be good in a multiple strategy situation,” Gustafson said. “And that’s a little bit tougher than it used to be.”
“You can be good on two tires, you can save fuel, you can be good on four tires, you can be good on a five lap shoot out at the end,” Gustafson said. “A champion is going to be good at all of those situations.”