Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson perfect NASCAR Sprint Cup pairing at Hendrick Motorsports.
By Lee SpencerFoxSports
Two weeks into the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and the happy endings just keep coming.
On the heels of stock car’s latest heartthrob, Trevor Bayne, making a whirlwind tour across America celebrating his Daytona 500 win — and the return of the venerable Wood Brothers Racing team to Victory Lane — the original Wonder Boy Jeff Gordon finally stopped a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix International Raceway.
For many NASCAR fans, it was as if order had finally been restored.
Before the party moves to Las Vegas — and the racing returns to 1.5-mile tracks — here are three topics to ponder:
Alan Gustafson, miracle worker
Pundits wanted to point to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the catalyst for the three-team swap at Hendrick Motorsports. However, for those that have championed Alan Gustafson’s accomplishments over the years, it was quite clear Gordon would benefit the greatest from the change.
Perhaps for a period, crew chief Steve Letarte was the right guy for him. But once Gordon settled down, had children and realized that he wasn’t going to stop racing at 40, it was time to move in a different direction.
And Gustafson is the guy who can take Gordon back to the status befitting a four-time champion.
Gordon says he “always admired and respected” Gustafson — a sentiment that was solidified during the crew chief's Kyle Busch stint. Gustafson was named crew chief for the No. 5 Hendrick team before the 2005 season, when Busch was just 19.
“Young Kyle Busch was a handful,” Gordon said. “I could remember every weekend, they would be fast and he would hit the wall and they would spend most of their time fixing the car in practice. To see him go through, knowing they are building fast race cars, but to be able to handle himself the way (Gustafson) handled those situations with a young Kyle Busch was impressive.”
Gustafson, 35, not only proved his patience and perseverance with “young Kyle Busch,” he showed versatility by resurrecting the career of then-50-year-old Mark Martin in 2009 and directing him to his best finish in the points standings in seven seasons and earning the most wins for the driver since 1998.
Certainly, Busch and Martin are two of the greatest racers in NASCAR history — and Gordon’s talent goes without saying. But Gustafson combines his passion for racing with classical education and a temperament that is more balanced than his fellow crew chiefs Chad Knaus or Ray Evernham in his heyday on the pit box.
Now, Gustafson has the full commitment of a four-time champion. The possibilities are promising.
“I got a chance to be over there and I came in, and he's just business,” Gordon said. “I mean, ‘Here's what we are doing, what we are working on, I've got an idea on seat and dash and we are going to test here and we are going to test here.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm on board, man, whatever you need. Whatever you need.'
“And to see the whole atmosphere in the shop, that solidified it for me. I didn't think he and I had to have some sit-down conversation about, 'Hey, here is how I talk and here is what I do.' To me, it was just more about the work that was being put into it.”
For the first time since 2007, when Gordon battled Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the title, he seemed to have a car worthy of his talent, and he did not disappoint. And although it’s only Week 2 in the season, Gustafson appears to have provided Gordon with a solid platform for his “Drive for Five.” It will be exciting to watch how far this pair can go.
The Jeff Gordon revival
Gordon showed Sunday that he is not ready to go quietly.
Watching Johnson leapfrog over the four-time champion to five consecutive titles — particularly since the No.48’s program was spawned from Gordon’s team — could not have been easy.
Gordon being asked over the past two years when he would break the longest losing streak of his Cup career was simply annoying.
But the humility with which Gordon handled the drought is the reason his victory was so popular among the fans and the competitors on Sunday. His own boss, Rick Hendrick, with whom Gordon has spent the past 19 seasons, said the driver had “something to prove.”
“When you talk about your pre-year picks, and he's mentioned in the Chase, but not a guy that's going to win the championship,” Hendrick said. “. . . I think it's been 60-some races since he won . . . came close last year and had terrible luck at the end.
“When you're a champion, like Jeff Gordon, you know that you can still do it. When people overlook you, I think it's something that he wanted to do. . . . One of the neatest things was to see the fans, to see their reaction to him today was unbelievable. He mentioned that over and over and over again in Victory Lane. I think he's been right there, but we have not, he has not had that edge and I think we are going to see a lot of momentum out of that team starting right now.”
The past five seasons, the fans have not embraced Johnson with the same fervor that they held for the late Dale Earnhardt or Gordon. Both were polarizing figures because half the crowd, or more, pulled for the Nos. 3 or 24. Despite Johnson’s good looks, engaging personality and talent, he has not resonated with the fans.
Not only did Gordon’s win resonate on Sunday, fans did not leave the racetrack following the win. Instead they cheered the No. 24 and offered the four-time champion his due.
And Gordon was genuinely grateful and savored the experience.
Speaking of Kyle
Phoenix International Raceway purchased a broom just in case it was needed for Victory Lane photos with Busch on Sunday after he won the events Friday and Saturday.
And while the sweep did not happen, it was not outside the realm of possibility. The kid is just that good, hence Gordon’s reference to his former teammate before his postrace celebration began: “Man, we just beat Kyle Busch.”
Gordon said, from watching Busch’s performance on TV earlier in the weekend, “Nobody could beat him.”
“He's tough,” Gordon added. “I respect his talent, that team, and he's aggressive. I think everybody knows, you don't want to have to restart up against him. He's just won a lot of stuff lately. And to be quite honest with you, to me, there's nothing cooler.
“I mean, maybe if that was with Jimmie; Jimmie and Kyle, I mean, to me, that's where they are at on tough guys in this sport to beat aggressive, talented drivers.”
Busch’s second-place finish on Sunday elevated him to the top of the Sprint Cup points standings, three points ahead of his brother Kurt. Although it’s way too early to make a title call, it’s not premature to be inspired by the 25-year-old’s accomplishments.
Busch’s participation in NASCAR’s feeder series — Camping World Truck and Nationwide — almost seems like child’s play. In his own equipment, he’s a force on the Truck tour. In Joe Gibbs Racing equipment on the Nationwide Series side, Busch often schools his competitors.
Busch thwarted a late-race charge from Carl Edwards in the Nationwide race to earn his 88th NASCAR victory and move to sixth on the all-time win list behind Martin, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Richard Petty. The Busch exhibition made him the first driver since Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona in July 2004 to lead a race from start to finish.
Although he earned a perfect driver rating on Saturday, Busch slipped on Lap 59 in the Cup race and collected Edwards, among others, on Sunday, knocking his rival from competition.
The Busch/Edwards contest could become problematic down the stretch. Busch acknowledged on Saturday that Edwards owed him one, and Sunday’s results likely compounded that equation. Busch apologized after both races, but that will fall on deaf ears.
While there’s not a driver that hates to lose as much as Busch, Edwards certainly matches his drive and determination. When it comes to payback, no driver is as vigilant as Edwards. And Busch is well aware of the possible consequences.
“Carl, you never know with him,” Busch said. “He can surprise you sometimes. With both of us having a really good day like (Saturday), it’s probably not necessarily worth it (to wreck Busch) and especially if it comes down to where the Chase is coming near and you’re close and not yet in or if it’s a championship time and you have a shot for the championship or you don’t.
“He’ll save it. It’s like an elephant, we all never forget. I loved racing with Carl, have and always have.”
The fans love it, too. This has all the makings of a rivalry for the ages. The Edwards/Brad Keselowski battles made for classical moments on a weekly basis in the Nationwide Series, but Keselowski isn’t quite up to Edwards' speed on the Cup side yet. Ditto for the Denny Hamlin/Keselowski feuds. And Hamlin/Johnson bouts were limited to Sundays.
But Busch vs. Edwards could begin each weekend on Saturday, fester, then bleed over to Sunday’s show.