CONCORD, N.C. – By now you know that Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 on Sunday night at Nashville Superspeedway. There were some white knuckle moments, though, most notably when a caution came out with eight laps to go at the 1.33-mile track.
That left crew chief Alan Gustafson with a choice: To have the No. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 pit or stay out and keep the lead? The veteran crew chief had no hesitation about staying out and keeping the track position. Typically, the field will do the opposite of what the leader does. That somewhat occurred in this instance as the cars that had been pursuing Elliott prior to the caution – Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. led a group down pit road. However, nine other cars stayed out to provide a little extra separation from those teams hit pit road and that made the call to stay look even better.
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"That was the difference," Gustafson said in his post-race press conference after his 35th win as a crew chief. "The 18 (Busch) was really fast on the short runs, so if he lines up anywhere near us on new tires, it's game over.
"My expectation was he (Busch) wasn't going to get that close and I felt like there was going to be tough -- there's enough chaos in front of you that you just can't go anyway, so that's what we were hoping for. Ultimately there was – ten -- when I saw, there was four or five legit good cars, guys that weren't going to be easy to pass. When I saw that, I felt better.
"But then you can't just say, oh, Kyle. You've got to switch your focus to Kurt (Busch). He's no slouch; the guy is a great race car driver. He just won at Kansas (Speedway), and that team has been doing really well. So you've got Kurt and you've got Kyle Larson and Ryan (Blaney), all those guys super good drivers and good teams. Had to execute regardless."
Gustafson also acknowledged seeing less tire falloff as the track cooled down more at night and that contributed some to the decision to stay out as well.
The move paid dividends as Elliott stayed ahead of Kurt Busch during the four-lap sprint to the finish for his 15th Cup Series win. The top four finishers in the race – Elliott, Kurt Busch, Blaney and Larson – all stayed out under the final caution of the race. Kyle Busch and Truex Jr. had trouble finding room to move on the final restart and finished 21st and 22nd, respectively.
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With a crew chief who is the longest tenured pit boss in the sport’s top series – Gustafson has been in that position since 2005 – the Dawsonville, Georgia, native has all the confidence in the world in the team’s leader.
"I let Alan (Gustafson) do his thing," Elliott said. "He lets me do my thing, so I'm going to let him do his and just have confidence in that. It doesn't do me any good to not.
"When I start questioning his decisions, I feel like is when we start going down a road that is not favorable for success. He has had a lot of respect for me and lets me do my job and lets me approach things a pretty unique way and kind of be me, so I've always respected him in return and let him do his thing and just had confidence in whatever that decision is."
The 300-lap event didn’t start out as strong as the No. 9 team would have liked with Gustafson saying post race that "we were Bad News Bears" at the start. Elliott finished stage one in eighth after starting fourth from the grid. During a pit stop under the fifth caution of the race on lap 120, the team had an issue on the left front – the crew chief later said they had a potential loose wheel, so they had Elliott back up into the stall to tighten it. The team pitted again under the same yellow flag for additional handling and chassis work before Elliott would restart 25th on lap 125. Following a weather delay, the car would come to life in cooler temperatures and he would recover to finish fourth in the stage.
Despite that recovery, the real moment where Gustafson thought this was the No. 9’s night came on the lap 210 restart where Elliott restarted 14th after pitting for fresh tires. He subsequently wasted no time getting back into the top five just two laps later – even passing five cars on one lap.
"I felt like that was kind of the moment in the race I was like, all right, we should win this race," Gustafson said. "Ultimately I didn't feel like we were going to pass the 18 (Kyle Busch) and 19 (Truex Jr.) at the time on equal ground, so I wanted to get off sequence with them there. When I did, not as many people pitted as I had hoped so we were a little bit further back, and he got back to fourth or fifth, in no time. I was like, this gives us a huge advantage.
"I think it's a testament to how good the 19 (Truex Jr.) was. It really took us a long time to pass him, but then certainly we got past him, were able to track Kyle (Busch) down in pretty quick order there. That was a big deal. Restarts typically aren't our forte and our strength, and Chase did an amazing job of that, and that was really kind of the first indication. I knew we were getting better. You just don't know how good you are because we weren't really in the best track position, and that was the first indication, I was like, all right, this thing is pretty good."
The Nashville victory puts Elliott into a three-way tie with Ross Chastain and teammate William Byron for the most playoff points earned this season. Next weekend's race at Road America is a chance to build on that total as Elliott is the defending race winner at the Wisconsin road course. The Elliott-Gustafson combo have seven road courses wins, with all of those coming since 2018.