Local kid takes childhood hero to Daytona 500 pole

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Alan Gustafson grew up five miles from Daytona International Speedway, close enough to hear the roar of race cars as he played in his backyard.

When he finally got inside the gates, he was instantly captivated by the speed and the men who poured everything they had into making cars go faster.

He was a Mark Martin fan. Maybe because as a kid growing up in Ormond Beach, it was easy to cheer on the driver who had made his home in Daytona.

But it was more than just rooting for the local guy for Gustafson, who was drawn to so many of Martin's qualities - humble and professional, respected by everyone around him, did things with very little flash.

Just like Gustafson.

Still, it was a bit of a stretch for Gustafson to imagine he'd graduate from go-karts and late models to someday partner with Martin at the best team in NASCAR. He had no reason to believe he'd have the chance to help Martin snap a three-year winless streak and guide him into the thick of a championship race.

And winning the pole for the Daytona 500? With Mark Martin? Forget it. Nothing more than a little boy's fanciful dream.

Only, all of it has happened in the year since Hendrick Motorsports paired Gustafson with his childhood idol. The two teamed to win five races and challenge teammate Jimmie Johnson for the title last season, and there's been little sign of dropoff so far at the season-opening Speedweeks.

Gustafson had the fastest car in the garage last week, when he gave Martin the equipment to win the first Daytona 500 pole in 26 tries.

It's an accomplishment Gustafson will forever treasure.

``It's a huge deal. Being a crew chief, this is a situation where you can really shine,'' he said. ``You've got an opportunity to put a well-engineered, fast car out there, run faster than anybody else for the biggest race of the year. If that wasn't enough, I grew up about five miles, and I could hear these cars in my backyard when I was 6 years old. So I came here for years and years, this place, the speed, the cars, watched the great crew chiefs do it. And now, I've been fortunate enough to accomplish that feat.

``Then, when my hero is driving the car, it makes it that much sweeter. It's really cool for me,'' he added.

It's really cool for everyone who knows Gustafson.

He's often overshadowed by Hendrick crew chiefs Chad Knaus, who has built a larger-than-life image while leading Johnson to four consecutive championships, and Steve Letarte, who has a high-profile job with Jeff Gordon. But his colleagues aren't joking when they point to Gustafson as the best crew chief in the garage.

And with all due respect to the long list of crew chiefs Martin has worked with since 1981, he ranks Gustafson the best.

``He's got the engineering savvy, the background, the education, and he's still able to wrap that around and get dirty hands at the race track to be physical and practical,'' Martin said. ``You usually don't get both. You get the nerd, or you get the guy that's really good at this but just ain't that bright.

``You can't usually get them both in one, but that's what I see with Alan,'' Martins said. ``He's just got it all. He's freaking good, man. I mean it, he is good.''

He's also fiercely loyal to team owner Rick Hendrick and his organization.

Gustafson has never forgotten the road he took to get into NASCAR. He worked on go-karts in Daytona, then legend cars and late models around Florida. He tried juggling racing with his pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree at nearby Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but with his reputation growing, he left school for a chance to move through the racing ranks in North Carolina.

It took just three years in North Carolina for Gustafson to get his foot in the door at HMS, where he was hired in 1999 to work in the chassis shop. He was lead engineer on the No. 5 car by 2002, and promoted to crew chief three seasons later when Kyle Busch replaced Terry Labonte.

Although Busch won four races and twice made the Chase for the championship, their three years together weren't very smooth. Gustafson knew he had a raw talent on his hands, but molding the youngest driver in the Cup Series was a full-time job.

Busch was fired midway through the 2007 season, and Gustafson didn't even consider moving on with the driver. Just days after Busch's firing, Gustafson famously declared ``I'd rather sweep floors for Rick Hendrick than be a crew chief somewhere else.''

That loyalty is not lost on Hendrick.

``If there's ever a soldier that you have to take into battle with you, it's Alan Gustafson,'' Hendrick said. ``You heard him when he said he'd rather sweep floors. He is so appreciative of everything, and it almost gets me teary-eyed to hear him talking about how he feels about this company. You can't buy that.''

So Gustafson stayed after Busch's departure, and was paired with Casey Mears for the 2008 season. Although the driver was much easier to work with, the results dropped off tremendously from Busch's performance level and the No. 5 team had just six top-10 finishes all season.

Hendrick then replaced Mears with Martin, finally giving Gustafson the complete package driver he'd been waiting for.

``He's a good dude, and he took a whipping. Kyle whipped his (butt) hard,'' Martin said. ``And then the beating he took with Casey, and he just never gave up. Never surrendered. They all told me he's the best at Hendrick Motorsports, and I believed every one of them and I am just so proud that I got to be a part and I didn't drag him along, too.

``But it's easy when you are driving his stuff,'' Martin said. ``I didn't know it could be as easy as it is.''

Tagged: Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin

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