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Elliott, Gustafson earn rapid redemption with Charlotte rebound

Chase Elliott often has been his own worst critic when absorbing defeat, no matter how directly involved he was in the outcome. Sunday’s loss in the waning moments of the Coca-Cola 600 was none of his own doing — a late caution flag, a decisive pit call and a deficit too much to overcome in a two-lap overtime dash.

Any internalizing by either himself or No. 9 team crew chief Alan Gustafson got some measure of erasure in Thursday night’s Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as Elliott capped a roundabout week and a half with a 2020 breakthrough win. It helped to ease not just his heart-wrenching runner-up finish as he pursued a signature win in Sunday’s 600, but also his crash from contention after a midweek run-in with Kyle Busch at Darlington Raceway.

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So Thursday, after Elliott took command for the final 28 laps to the finish, a familiar feeling crept in — dread. Anything going awry by then would’ve probably been met by a familiar response — his overly memed one-finger salute, borrowed from Darlington.

“Honestly, it really just keeps you grounded, to be completely frank, especially after Sunday,” Elliott said after a rainy last two days at the 1.5-mile track. “You’re just kind of waiting on something to happen. It just kind of keeps you grounded, and the fact that it’s never over until it’s over, we’ve been reminded of that quite a lot, and that’s a lesson I’m never going to forget.”

Gustafson didn’t wilt either, even with Sunday’s hard lessons to soak in from his perch atop the No. 9 pit box. His call to stop for tires at the end of the sport’s longest race left his driver with an insurmountable gap to close, after many other front-runners opted to hold their positions on older tires for the final restart.

Gustafson said he took the loss hard, but that the post-race conversations with Elliott in the days that followed were encouraging, providing the reassurance that both driver and crew chief were “in lockstep” with their strategy.

“You know, I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said. “But yeah, it was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

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The chance to get over the heartache came sooner than usual with a Thursday event, washed out from its originally scheduled Wednesday date by rain, but part of NASCAR’s efforts to pack in make-up races after the coronavirus shutdown. A measured return of Elliott’s stride came Tuesday with his first Gander Trucks victory in three years, a triumph that bested Busch to clinch a six-figure donation for charity.

Thursday, Gustafson added his part to the cause, making the right adjustments on the final pit stop to make Elliott’s car take off at full sail. Elliott passed a fading Kevin Harvick to take the lead for the only time all night.

Elliott then kept the dread at bay for 28 more laps, and Gustafson avoided any more cast stones or second-guesses.

“I think you have to be a little bit hard‑headed to do this job, and you have to find a way to improve, and just you have to kind of shake it off,” Gustafson said. “Professional sports are super fickle, and one day you’re good and one day you’re terrible, and you just get used to that.”