FORT WORTH, Tex. – Chase Elliott has been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks. On Sunday, he kicked down the door with a NASCAR Cup Series win at Texas Motor Speedway, snapping a 42-race drought. The triumph not only locks the No. 9 team into the playoffs but also serves notice that the driver of the No. 9 is a contender this season. 

Over the last month, the team has been one of the stronger performers in the series. The Texas win marked Elliott's third consecutive top-five finish. This run started with a fifth-place result at Richmond Raceway and a third-place finish at Martinsville Speedway as part of Hendrick Motorsports' top-three sweep in its 40th anniversary race

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Chase Elliott, No. 9 team gear

In 2024, the team's pit crew of Chad Avrit (rear-tire changer), Jared Erspamer (tire carrier), John Gianninoto (fueler), Nick O'Dell (front-tire changer), and T.J. Semke (jackman) have the fastest four-tire average pit stop time (10.724 seconds), per Racing Insights. In the Texas race, three of their four four-tire stops were 9.476 seconds or less, including the fastest four-tire stop of the season.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson felt his driver and team were close to a breakthrough victory. 

"You've got to be there, take some swings at it, some cracks at it," Gustafson said. "I think Richmond maybe didn't show up to everybody watching the race, but I thought we had a good shot at that race. It just didn't go our way at the end. Martinsville, obviously, 20 or 30 laps away from closing the deal on that one. We knew we were close. 

"We came here with a lot of momentum as a team, a lot of belief and positive energy. You see that intersecting with a track that's traditionally not great for us. I think everybody just focused on the positive and what we could potentially do here, not how difficult it's been in the past."

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To Gustafson's point, Texas and even 1.5-mile tracks in the Next Gen era have not been the bread-and-butter of the No. 9 team. Sunday's event was Elliott's first win on a 1.5-mile track since 2020 and his first top-five finish on that track length since 2021. The Dawsonville Pool Room in Elliott's hometown sounded its famous siren after the win. 

Elliott's strong run of races has harkened back to seasons where he won multiple races (2018 to 2022) and reached the Championship 4 in three straight years (2020 to 2022). The 2023 season saw the No. 9 group face adversity. A fractured tibia sidelined Elliott for six races last year and the six-time National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award winner struggled to regain his rhythm after an extended absence from the car. He led the team to the Round of 8 in the owner's championship but missed the driver playoffs for the first time. 

However, the team weathered that stormy season and has come through to the other side. Much of the team dates back to Elliott's 2016 rookie season, and his pit crew is the same as the one with whom he won the 2020 title.

"I've been really proud of our group for sticking together," Elliott said. "It's easy when things go bad to jump ship, go do something different and for those guys to go elsewhere. It just is. It happens a lot.

"I think that the win's great. All that stuff is fantastic, but truthfully, I'm most proud of the journey and the group of people that we have climbed back up together with. We've made each other better. They push me to be a better driver and a better person. 

"I just feel like we're all in a good place. It's nice to see all the hard work pay off. Those guys deserve to win. They've been busting it for a while and doing a really good job."

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Gustafson and Elliott are the longest-tenured driver-crew chief pairing in the garage, having been together since 2016. Gustafson is the only full-time crew chief that the 28-year-old driver has known in the Cup Series and the duo has won 19 races (second-most among active pairings). They have experienced the highest highs in the sport (winning the 2020 premier series championship) and the lowest lows (missing the playoffs in an injury-marred 2023 season). With that time together and Gustafson's 20 years of experience on the pit box comes an intangible that is hard to measure.  

"You just have to trust in the process, trust each other, focus on improving, not get caught up on what you don't have and focus on what you do have," Gustafson said. "We have everything we need to win with Mr. Hendrick, how he supports us and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports supports us. This is a great race team and a great pit crew. 

"We just knew you had to stay committed to that and each other. That's all I do. It's not anything special besides just being super, super stubborn and resilient."

The next two tracks on the schedule, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway, are two of Elliott's four venues where he has multiple victories (two each) in the Cup Series. Those are two prime opportunities to add more trophies to what has been a stellar start for team owner Rick Hendrick's 40th anniversary season. Elliott appreciates all the support the NASCAR Hall of Famer has provided him. 

"I'm appreciative of him for sticking with me and continuing to believe in me and to make sure that I know that," Elliott said. "He does a great job of that and I'm grateful. 

"I'm glad I can contribute and we can contribute as a team to the company as a whole. That's a lot more fun when you're doing that."