“He's very, very energized right now and he's with a race team that's very energized,” Martin says of Gordon. “That's a very excited group that are fun to go to the racetrack with and I think he's really enjoying life right now. We're continuing to grow and work together and be stronger as we get more races under our belt.”
“Shaking things up has been helpful,” adds Johnson, the five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. “As a group we're still trying to figure out the mouse trap we've built over the off-season so we're all getting stronger and better as a team. It's going really well.”
When team owner Hendrick announced the crew chief shuffle last fall, conventional wisdom was that it was the last chance at Hendrick for Earnhardt, who was hugely disappointing in his first three seasons with NASCAR's super team. In truth, though, it was much more than that. Crew chief Gustafson, who grew up in Daytona Beach and is a college-educated engineer, is seen as more of a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone leader than Gordon's former crew chief Letarte, a more touchy-feely motivational type.
“I had my eye on Alan for a long time,” says Gordon (with Gustafson, LEFT). “When I got a chance to be over there, I came in and discovered he's just business; I mean, ‘Here's what we are doing, what we are working on. I've got an idea on the seat and the dash and we are going to test here and we are going to test here.'
“And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I'm on board, man, whatever you need. Whatever you need.' And to see the whole atmosphere in the shop, that solidified it for me. I didn't think he and I had to have some sit-down conversation about, ‘Hey, here is how I talk and here is what I do.' To me, it was more about the work that was being put into it.”
Hendrick concurs. “With Alan as an engineer, he is a proven commodity,” says the team owner. “He's been there and won races with a lot of people. He's finished second in the points before. He and Jeff have a relationship. He's very technical – not a lot of conversation but very to the point and matter-of-fact and I think, at this point in Jeff's career, and with his track record, that works good for him.”
How good is Gustafson? In 2009, his first year teamed with Martin at Hendrick, Gustafson led the No. 5 to five race victories – more than Martin had posted from 2000 to 2008 combined – and a second-place points finish behind Johnson. That led Martin to opine on more than one occasion, “Alan Gustafson is the smartest crew chief I ever worked with.”
Chad Knaus, widely regarded as the best crew chief in NASCAR history, is also a huge Gustafson fan. “I think Alan is the smartest crew chief out there,” Knaus says. “I've been saying that for a couple years now. Their engineering staff is second to none. They do a very good job of facilitating tests, looking at seven-post rig data, gathering intel and using that information. And I think it's just a matter of time before they get their chance.”
Gustafson, the consummate company man on a team full of them, keeps low and out of the limelight, concentrating on making his cars go fast, rather than seeking out credit. And he is fiercely loyal to team owner Hendrick for giving him a shot at the big time.
He recalls: “I know when I started here in the chassis shop, basically I was a…I don't want to say a nobody because a nobody is a nobody. But I was nowhere on his [Hendrick's] radar, yet he treated me like I was the best crew chief in the world or the president of Lowe's or whatever. He was extremely – extremely – good to me, and he's supported me through thick and thin. Yeah, he's supported me in tough times.
“One thing that stands out in my mind is that, when we've had issues on the racetrack or we had performance issues last year, there are a lot of owners who would have gone right to the crew chief. You see that week in and week out. But Mr. Hendrick had faith in me, and he stood behind me. I will return that favor 10 times over. I think that's the key.”
There is no question that the kumbaya spirit exists in the Hendrick Motorsports team garages right now. Hendrick says change was needed and that even a four-time champion like Gordon can get discouraged when he can't find Victory Lane.
“I think he's a competitor, he's a champion and, you know, everybody gets down,” Hendrick says. “I get down, we all get down. And you have to have some reason to get excited again, and that's what the realignment this year was all about. Let's start to give everybody something new to look forward to without really going outside of the walls by bringing someone in that we weren't accustomed to. I felt like everybody here was capable and really good in their own way. But this might be a way to get everybody excited about coming back this year.”
It just might do that. But the real question is, does the pairing of Gordon and Gustafson have what it takes to knock off Johnson and finally seal the deal with a fifth championship? That remains very much of an open question. The Phoenix victory certainly was a good start. But Gordon, ever the realist, knows that it's only a start and that the hard work lies ahead.
“A victory will carry you,” says Gordon. “It will lift the whole team up and carry you, but it won't carry you forever. You have to do it again.”
And that's exactly what Gordon and Gustafson are aiming to do – win again and again. All the way to a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.