HAMPTON, GEORGIA - JULY 11: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Adrenaline Shoc Chevrolet, (R) and crew chief Alan Gustafson talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 11, 2021 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Alan Gustafson on 600 Cup Series starts: ‘It’s changed a lot’

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team of Chase Elliott, will be making his 600th career NASCAR Cup Series start atop the pit box in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts Salute to First Responders 400 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Gustafson has served as a crew chief for five different Cup Series drivers in his career, dating back to Kyle Busch’s rookie season in 2005. Since then, he has worked alongside Casey Mears, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Elliott.

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“When I reflect back, I just think of the different drivers and situations with the different drivers, the personalities, pit-crew members and different things,” Gustafson said. “I think when you start at one, you’re just hoping to get to two. And then you’re maybe kind of hoping to get to get to 30 and then you’re trying to make it two years. As you go, you’re just really trying to survive. This sport is obviously super competitive and a lot of times it’s more bad news than good news. So, you’re trying to do the best you can to prosper and survive.”

Gustafson earned his first Cup Series victory with Busch at Auto Club Speedway in 2005. Gustafson has earned 33 race victories in total so far, including four with Busch, five with Martin, 11 with Gordon and 13 with Elliott. He also earned his first career Cup Series championship with Elliott in 2020.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 08: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and crew chief Alan Gustafson celebrate in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 08, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson celebrate winning the 2020 Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway. Chris Graythen | Getty Images

When reflecting back over the course of a career that continues to prosper, Gustafson’s biggest observation is how much the dynamic of a race team has changed throughout his 17 years at NASCAR’s highest level.

“It’s changed a lot in 600 starts,” Gustafson said. “When I first started, it was really the crew chief and the team, and man, you did everything. You did everything – spec the chassis builds, where you wanted your front clips, where you wanted your rear clips, where you wanted your frame rails, where you wanted to install the engine, what this car was going to run and the body specification when we just had the templates, how far you wanted to offset your tail and what do you want to do with your roof. Not only did you have a vast amount of options, you had very little information to make those decisions with.

“I just remember back then, there was a lot of freedom and room to run; and certainly, a lot of uncertainty that came with that. Now, it’s much more granular. It’s very small stuff and we do it collaboratively.”

Elliott, Gustafson and the No. 9 team are set to start 13th in Saturday night’s second race in the Playoffs Round of 16. After a 31st-place showing in the first postseason race last Sunday at Darlington Raceway, the defending champion sits 10th in the standings, four points above the elimination line.