2014 NASCAR Q&A: NASCAR Sprint Cup - Alan Gustafson
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. We're joined today by Alan Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup Series. Alan led the 24 team to victory last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which marked Jeff Gordon's fifth Brickyard win.
Congratulations on your Brickyard win.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Thanks for having me. It was a great day, so fun to talk about.
THE MODERATOR: With last week's win, assuming you start the next six races, the 24 team has officially clinched a spot in the Chase. Talk about how that will change your strategy moving forward.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I think for us we felt pretty confident we were going to get in the Chase anyway, so we had headed the direction of preparing for the Chase, trying to fine tune our program throughout the next six, seven races, put ourselves in good position.
Not much has changed for us, though it's a nice change over where we'd been the last couple years. Not having to sweat our way into the Chase, we're in solidly, and we can focus on performing well in those last 10.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Alan. We'll now go to the media for questions.
Q. Alan, my question is about Charlotte, looking ahead. How do your strategy and preparation for the fall Charlotte race differ from your strategy and preparation for the 600?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, that's a good question. I think one of the biggest things that changes, in my opinion, is the weather's a lot cooler in the fall race. It really can be cold. The track has a lot of grip. The cars have a lot of grip.
Track position I think becomes even a little bit more of a premium than it does in the spring race. You've got to be aggressive with your pit strategy. You've got to keep the car out front.
It's a very demanding racetrack either way. I know the extra 100 miles in the spring puts more emphasis on durability. We take that into account with part life and different things.
But in the fall, it's really just as demanding because the speeds are so high. I think the thing, qualifying and track position become a little bit more of a premium in the fall because I think it's just a little bit more difficult to pass with the track having so much grip. The preferred lane usually is the bottom.
That's the biggest thing for me. You've got to adjust the car for the conditions. If you took the same setup you were successful with in the spring, it's going to take some adjustment. That's probably what we'll focus on.
Q. When was the last time that you remember seeing Jeff Gordon this confident and this happy?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, I've seen it in spurts. I think the thing that we've struggled to do over the last few years is have that consistently and have that confidence consistently, not shoot ourselves in the foot.
I think he's in a good place in his life personally. But I think he's been there for a while. I think all the work that we've put in, all the work that he's put in, making it through the difficult times, putting ourselves in position this year, has energized him.
I think that he sees the reality of what we can do. It's exciting for all of us.
Q. Alan, I'm going to paraphrase Jeff a little bit. On Sunday he said how the Kansas win was great for you guys, gave you confidence, but the Brickyard win made the team believers, that the championship was a possibility. As the crew chief who spends more time with the crew than the driver does, did you see a little shift in confidence or belief after the win?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I think that's been building. I don't think it happens overnight or it changes drastically based on Indianapolis. I think it's been building as we've performed and continue to perform, perform in adverse situations.
To be honest with you, even Loudon, running out of fuel was a bad thing, but coming back there and putting ourselves in a position to win was a building block along the way.
Indianapolis helps for sure. If you look at Kansas we were good. Probably a push to the 4 car, we were about even with him. We ended up getting an advantage on a pit stop and ended up winning the race. He was coming hard there at the end.
But I think Indianapolis, we were the best car and were able to execute all day and win the race. That gives us confidence and that gives us, you know, I don't want to say added incentive, but just an added feel of ability and confidence in our ability, I guess I should say, in what we can do moving forward, maybe a little bit more than what Kansas did.
Q. You're putting together this great season. It all gets changed and reset for the Chase. Nobody knows how this Chase is going to play out under this new format. How do you work on maintaining not just the consistency but I assume everyone is going to have to be really good and at the top of their game in the Chase to keep advancing and get to Homestead. How do you prepare Jeff and the guys for that?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, it's a great question.
It is going to be new for everybody, unprecedented territory. We're going to have to be focused and prepared and able to be at the top of our game.
But I also feel like we'll have to be able to handle some adversity, you know, because there's a great possibility that that's going to happen. I think that can be crucial.
Obviously right now you don't want to wear the guys out. You want to kind of get everybody rejuvenated. But we have to continue to push on our cars and make as many technological advances as we can, improve the car as much as we can, go into the Chase with good cars and execute.
If something goes wrong, we have to have confidence in each other and belief in the team that we can overcome it and come back that next week.
You could be in a situation where it comes down to one race to advance. You could be in a situation where you have to do it on points or have to do it by winning the race if you have some adversity the first couple races.
I think you have to be able to bounce back and believe in what you're doing.
You know, I don't want our success to be, A, we can't get too confident for sure because there's a lot of good race teams out there that are very, very capable. And B, we have to stay very driven. You have to stay very hungry. We've got to go in and race every race like it's our last.
Q. I'm wondering if you and maybe other crew chiefs were surprised that a block off plate issue was determined to be a P5 penalty by NASCAR and sent a message at all to the garage?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I don't know enough about what happened. I don't really want to comment on what happened because I don't have the information. I don't know very much. What I know is too vague.
As far as the severity of it, yeah, anytime you see those kind of penalties, it's like, Wow, that's huge. It gets your attention. It's something that you definitely think about. You have different emotions and thoughts, things run through your head. It has an impact on you.
So, you know, like I said, I don't know what happened. I don't know how it all transpired. To be honest with you, it's really none of my business. But the severity is something that I was like, Wow, that's a significant, significant penalty.
Q. Some people would say that the penalties weren't severe because Denny should make the Chase, it gives Darian time to work on more stuff in the shop for the Chase. Talk about the impact of a crew chief having a fine and missing races in general.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, I think for somebody to say that has no impact or it's not severe enough, that's crazy in my opinion. I mean, I think it's very significant. This is my livelihood. It's Darian's livelihood. I can't imagine being told you can't do it for six weeks, how you have to handle that, deal with it, what that creates.
Fortunately for me, I've never had to go through that. I don't want to ever have to go through that.
I think at the end of the day people's livelihoods are at stake. This is how we make our living. This is our lives, what we put a huge amount of effort into. To say that's insignificant, I definitely disagree with that.
Q. It looked like you were really excited when Jeff took the lead on the final restart at Indy. We know what winning at the Brickyard means to Jeff. What did winning there mean for you personally?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, it was a huge win for me. Really even being from Ormond Beach, Florida, that race is the one that I wanted to win the most in my career.
I think Indy demands the best of everything. You have to have a great car, great engine, great driver, great team, great setup, everything. Strategy has to be perfect.
Everything about that race is extremely, extremely difficult.
You take that challenge and then you put it in that environment with the history of the racetrack. That racetrack, in my opinion, is such a world stage. Everybody in the world knows Indianapolis Motor Speedway, knows the history and heritage behind it. A huge, huge place.
I enjoy the history of the place. I love walking in there. I love the feel of the track. I love the tradition. It's just something that I really enjoy.
If it had to be a race, that's the one I would pick. Obviously the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year for us. That gets a lot of attention. It should be. But what differentiates Indianapolis and Daytona for me is, as a person who loves racing, the engineering side of racing, technology, trying to get a car to go fast, that applies more at Indianapolis than it does at Daytona with the restrictor plate format. The restrictor plate format kind of changes how you race Daytona, the circumstances around it.
That's what kind of makes Indianapolis a little bit more special to me, is it's more of what we do every week, more of I don't want to say the traditional racing that we do week in, week out, if that's at Charlotte, if that's at Kansas, if that's at Richmond, wherever.
Q. Speaking of the technical side of it, does winning there and running as well as you did, does that speak well for the program at any other particular type of track going forward? Is there anything that's going to help you guys like this weekend at Pocono or somewhere else down the road?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I think it helps. I think it will apply to Pocono probably the most. It can help a lot of places.
The things that we were able to improve on at Indy, you know, we can take to Pocono. Really if you rewind, we raced Pocono, improved on that, went to Indy. Now we went to Indy, improved on that, and go to Pocono. It's a constant evolution. It can be applied everywhere.
But I think Pocono is probably the track that will correlate the most.
Q. If I recall correctly, Chad Knaus said Pocono is one of his favorite tracks because of the challenges, the three different turns. Do you feel that way? Do you look forward to going to Pocono? Would you rather skip it? I know Jeff has had great success there.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: No, I love Pocono. There's not really any track on the circuit that I don't like going to. Each track has its own challenges.
I like Pocono. I like the track. I like the challenge. I like the strategy challenge there. It's another track, like any, that you've got to be perfect on your strategy. If you're not, you won't be able to win.
That's what got us there last week. I felt I was a little bit off. It's a fun challenge and something I enjoy working on and planning for. As the race evolves, you try to work through.
The differences in the corners always generate some compromise. You're trying to compromise the least amount as possible.
I like the area. I think it's a cool place. It's fun. The weather's going to be nice and mild up there. I'm looking forward to it.
Q. I think the first time I went down on pit road, the first thing that amazed me were the crew guys going over pit wall. That's a proactive thing and reactive thing. Talk a little bit about how you adapt, making decisions, share with fans the process you have to go through that's so important.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Are you referring to pit calls?
Q. Pit calls, or for instance when you have a problem. Obviously pit stops don't always go well.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah.
Q. How do you react to that, your decision process, stuff like that?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I mean, for me I think it's all about, you know, education and how much have you prepared, how well have you prepared, how well have you educated yourself and your crew members for whatever circumstance that may come, and then how you handle those circumstances. There's always going to be difficult things.
For example, for us, we have a little different choreography with our fueling at Indianapolis. The gas man came back with a second can, there was fuel on the ground, he slipped. That's something we're aware of and prepare for, and he got caught out by.
It's a tough situation. But you immediately have to address it. You have to understand what happened, address it, get a plan and move forward because there's a lot of racing left to go.
That's the way I like to handle it. Communication is very crucial. To me I think it's important to address situations and move on and stay positive because there's always opportunity, regardless of what happens or how bad you think it is. There's always opportunity. Even if you've been in a situation where you had an error on pit road, you're in the back of the pack, that can give you a lot of strategy opportunities, opportunities to get a tire advantage, do a lot of different things.
I think you always work on it, communicate and prepare. When you have to make those quick decisions also as far as what you're going to do, it's a lot easier because you're prepared for it. You've gone over it in your head, you've got a plan, you stick to it and you execute.
The better job you do preparing, the better your plan looks, the more it seems you can make great decisions on the fly, but really those decisions were made way, way, way in advance.
Q. Where does Indy rank in your order of wins and has it sunk in yet?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I think to me it's my biggest accomplishment, it's my biggest win in the series. Has it sunk in yet? I think, you know, at the track it was nice. It was a great opportunity to enjoy it. Then past that you kind of have to get back to work and you have to put it behind you, focus on moving forward.
I think it sunk in. But I would say there's not much time to enjoy it. I am looking forward on looking back on it for the rest of my life. There will be times when you look back and say, Do you remember this, do you remember Indy? That's really cool when you accomplish great things. They can never be taken away. It's something you'll always cherish.
The race, for me I don't know that you could have scripted a better scenario, a better race, a better situation, better timing. You very rarely get that all to come together like we did, so it's extremely special.
Q. Being locked into the Chase, what are some other short term goals now before Richmond?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Being locked in the Chase, we have to fine tune our program, perfect our program. We've got to win. We have to contend, try to win, put ourselves in position to win, be able to get over the hump like we did at Indy.
If we have cars like that, we've got to win those races. We did that on Sunday. The goal really from here on out is to get cars like that at the racetrack every weekend and take advantage of it.
If we can do that and can continue to operate at that level, then we'll be in great shape for the Chase.
Q. How do you really maintain the balance of working on the remaining races leading up to the Chase and then your Chase preparations? Are you already in kind of both of those modes?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, they both have a lot of interaction. It's not a separate agenda. What we like to do is, you know, use these races to fine tune our program and take the cars that you're potentially going to race in the Chase and work through them, make sure that everything's operating correctly, the way we want it to be, implement whatever upgrades we can come up with, implement them as we go through these next few races.
I do think we can be more aggressive now with that stuff. We want to get that all out of the way so when we get into the Chase it's a tried and true package, we're not having to extend ourselves further than we want to. We can stay in a very comfortable zone and know that the product we have on the track is very tried and true and durable and ready to compete and hopefully do really well over the last 10.
It's all the same, but we're going to do it in a little different phase where we work through it a little more aggressively now. Then if we're going to make those mistakes, we want to make them now, get them out of the way, have a very solid product for the Chase.
THE MODERATOR: Alan, thanks so much for joining us today and good luck this weekend at Pocono.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Thank you. No problem.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you to the media, as well.