Chase Elliott’s three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2018 marked a breakthrough in his young career.
The 98 winless races leading up to his first victory at Watkins Glen were trying for the No. 9 driver. The racing industry knew that; his weekly interviews conveyed his frustration.
But perhaps fewer knew just how heavily the burden weighed on his shoulders.
“I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personal he was taking not winning races,” No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson said at the Hendrick Motorsports campus on Jan. 22. “And once he won, I realized ‘wow, it was something he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’”
Elliott enters into his fourth full-time season in the Monster Energy Series this year, a feat he noted is “hard to believe.” The pressure of a first win has evaporated in the confetti of three Victory Lane celebrations, but that doesn’t mean much for the 23-year-old driver.
Because he can’t really ride the coattails of last year’s wins, he said.
“It’s kind of a fresh start in a lot of ways,” Elliott said on this season during a teleconference on Monday. “I mean, I think definitely there was nothing negative about the wins and things. I obviously wish we could have finished a little stronger those last handful, but it’s hard to piggy‑back off of a win and the month of, what was it, September‑October and then continue that in the end of February. But we’ll try our best and try to get rolling.”
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The 2019 season also marks Elliott’s fourth season with Gustafson, who guided Jeff Gordon atop the No. 24 pit box before Gordon’s retirement from full-time driving at the end of 2015. The 43-year-old crew chief’s confidence in his young driver is high – it has been from the beginning, when Elliott was still finding his footing in the series.
“His talent has always been really good,” Gustafson said. “He has been really skilled from the start. I feel like from the first race we had him we felt like we could win. In all actuality, ifs and buts, we probably should have won some races before last season.
“ …I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants he will win the race with it,” he added. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome. He is still young enough to where he doesn’t have too many habits, so change isn’t going to be as difficult for him as it is maybe some of the other guys. You know you look at his level of talent he is in a pretty elite level, but most of the guys that he is around have been doing this for a while, so change might be a little bit more difficult for them.”
Gustafson noted the biggest transformation is the way he races others.
“He doesn’t take anything that really isn’t his real estate or force people in bad positions,” he said. “I think he has been taken advantage of a few times because of that and I think that has frustrated him. I’ve seen that change in him. He certainly races some people that kind of consistently have not given him the same respect, he has adjusted how he races them. I think that is a good thing and a good idea. Certainly, helps his performance. You can’t consistently come out on the bad end of deals or altercations or whatever.
“… That process has given him a little bit of an edge,” Gustafson added. “… He has raced the guys that run up front pretty much every week enough where they know what he is and what he’s about. I certainly think they know he is going to be there week in and week out, they better think twice if they are going to do something that might be a little bit questionable.”
Just as a crew chief needs to believe in his driver, a driver also needs to believe in his leader’s guidance. The confidence is certainly mutual from Elliott to Gustafson.
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“I have a lot of confidence in him, and nice to feel from his end it’s mutual,” Elliott said. “I think that goes a long way. …
“Our relationship really has been pretty simple. … I kind of let his do his thing and he lets me do mine, and we really just go about our business that way. Our friendship has grown, I think, over the past couple years. We’re by no means best friends. I think he would tell you the same thing.
“But we work well together, and I think that we enjoy the competition aspect at a similar pace, and he and I, I feel like, view a lot of things the same way from that aspect, and when you’re working with somebody and you’re in the roles that he and I are both in, I’m not real sure that there’s a much better fit or a better way to go about it.”