CONCORD, N.C. - For the entirety of Chase Elliott’s full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, there has been one common dominator alongside him: Alan Gustafson.
Since being paired together for the start of the 2016 season, they have won a championship in 2020 and their 18 wins are the second-most among active driver-crew chief pairings. And for the third straight season, Elliott and Gustafson have reached the Championship 4 and will race for a title at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday.
The seeds of the pair’s success comes in their belief in each other, according to team owner Rick Hendrick.
"Chase really respects Alan a lot," Hendrick said. "He likes the thought process that Alan puts into a race. I’ve heard Chase say it many, many times, it sure helps when a driver thinks he has the smartest crew chief in the garage. Some of the innovative things that Alan has come up with, Chase just praises him for his dedication to the car that he won’t leave any stone unturned. That gives Chase a tremendous amount of confidence."
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Elliott traces it back to how he approached things when he was first teamed up with Gustafson following Jeff Gordon's retirement after the 2015 season.
"I really just stepped into his team and I’ve always viewed it that way," Elliott said during Championship 4 Media Day. "I’ve always just let him do his thing and respect him for that and trust in what he thinks is the right decision. In turn, he’s always given me a lot of respect and let me do things kind of the way I want to do them.
"We’re also very open and honest with each other if we need to be better. We can totally have those tough conversations and nobody gets their feelings hurt. I think that’s crucial to being able to improve and get better over time."
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Sunday’s Championship 4 race will see Elliott and Gustafson competing against the teams of Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain and Joey Logano for the Bill France Trophy. The duo is seeking to enter elite company should they win a second title together. Elliott would become the 17th driver to win multiple Cup Series championships and the second youngest driver to do so. Gustafson would be the 16th crew chief to earn multiple Cup Series championships and only the second active pit boss to have that achievement.
The 2022 run to the Championship 4 has gone a bit differently than the previous two trips to the title round for the current longest tenure driver-crew chief pairing at Hendrick Motorsports. After four wins, 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s in the first 26 races, the regular-season champions have had a bit of an up-and-down playoff performance with a win, two top-fives and three top-10s over the course of the nine playoff races to date.
"In 2020, we had a solid season but that win at Martinsville (Speedway) was just so huge and we were on the outside looking in," Elliott told HendrickMotorsports.com earlier this week when reflecting back on his previous Championship 4 seasons. "Not knowing whether or not you are going to have a shot the next week to winning the race, having a chance and going out there and having an incredible seven-day period capped off at Phoenix (Raceway).
"Last year, I had probably a more consistent season. Not as many wins, but a more consistent season. Was just a bit of a different narrative. This year, we’ve had the wins, but not had a good playoff run. But those wins throughout the regular season have helped us get here."
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Phoenix, site of Sunday’s title showdown, has been a strong track for both Elliott and Gustafson. The 26-year-old driver from Dawsonville, Georgia, has a win (2020 championship race), five top-five finishes, eight top-10s, 546 laps led and an average finish of 10.69. The latter mark is best among the Championship 4 drivers at the 1-mile venue. In the spring race, Elliott was the best running Championship 4 driver for 236 of the 312 laps at the Arizona facility.
Gustafson's four wins at this track are second-most all-time among crew chiefs and he has done it with four different drivers. In addition to his title-clinching win with Elliott in 2020, the 47-year-old native of Ormond Beach, Florida, has also won at Phoenix with Kyle Busch (in 2005), Mark Martin (in 2009) and Jeff Gordon (in 2011).
"It’s a one-race championship," Gustafson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. "The one-race championship is a different feel, different setup. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s once you are here, anything can happen. All of the cars have a great opportunity, and all of the teams have a great opportunity.
"The goal is always to give ourselves this opportunity. That’s what you want to do. Phoenix is a great track for us and we had a great car in the spring. I feel really good about going back there and having fun with it. Just cutting loose and letting it rip. It suits our team well."
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One wrinkle for this weekend will see practice and qualifying held on separate days. Cup Series cars will get a 50-minute practice on Friday at 8:05 p.m. ET and group qualifying will take place at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (coverage for both events will be on USA Network, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio-Channel 90).
"I like practicing," Gustafson said. "I like the opportunity to get feedback on the car and adjust the car to try and improve it. That’s fun to me. It’s favorable."
Tune in to see Elliott, Gustafson and the No. 9 team chase their second championship crown at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90) on Sunday afternoon.