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October 30, 2017

Elliott’s crew chief warns rules of engagement with Hamlin have changed

RELATED: Tempers flare for Hamlin, Elliott | Hamlin apologizes, regrets outcome

Will Sunday’s Chase Elliott vs. Denny Hamlin dust-up from Martinsville Speedway carry over to next week?

Maybe so, maybe no. But at least according to Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports entry, the rules of engagement going forward may have changed.

“I’m cool with it,” Gustafson said from pit road after surveying the damage to Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet. “When we have his back tires jacked up going into probably (turn) three at Texas, that’ll be a bigger corner, then just be good with that, too.”

MORE: Martinsville fans swing to Elliott | Elliott offers his take | Hamlin’s side of things

With the opportunities to advance to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ championship stage dwindling, it’s clear the gloves are off for at least two of the eight drivers still alive in the Playoffs. Elliott’s hurt feelings were evident in post-race interviews, and with good reason. One of his best chances at making that first premier-series trip to Victory Lane — and the championship-race berth that went with it — evaporated with help from the forceful front bumper of Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota. Elliott’s post-race contact with Hamlin’s car and their confrontational words afterward underscored his frustration.

Having Martinsville as a table-setter for the Playoffs’ Round of 8 is a high-risk, high-reward game. Gustafson knows it full well, having helped guide Jeff Gordon’s drive to a championship berth in 2015 with a clutch Martinsville win that pushed the No. 24 team to an emotional high. Sunday’s race ranked among the lows.

“I don’t know if I expected to be just wrecked, but you never know,” Gustafson said. “It’s pretty intense, and it’s Martinsville, and it’s a transfer to Homestead. Got a lot on the line, but yeah, so anything can happen.”

Gustafson has had the front-row ticket for Elliott’s development this year, a season that’s seen its share of near-misses for a breakthrough triumph. The 21-year-old driver has been a runner-up four times this season, six times in his brief Monster Energy Series career.

RELATED: Drivers with most runner-up finishes before first win

Along the way, he’s been among his own harshest critics. Sunday, Elliott had another place to lay the blame, but still had little to show for his stellar performance than 123 laps led and a 27th-place finish.

“I think he’s improved,” Gustafson said. “He’s done an incredible job and it’s unfortunate that race wins have eluded us because I think that’s the only thing that we haven’t been able to do this year. We’ve done everything else.”