Jeff Gordon, with Alan Gustafson, is third in the standings, 27 points behind Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
Charlotte, N.C. — As Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line at Martinsville Speedway to pick up his first win of the season, the chemistry was clicking between the No. 24 crew.
“You guys are awesome!” Gordon screamed on his radio. “Never give up! What a fight!”
“That’s right, champ!” replied crew chief Alan Gustafson.
The relationship wasn’t so rosy three months ago, when driver and crew chief had a talk following a 10th-place finish at New Hampshire. Gordon had expected a win that day, at minimum a strong finish, and he failed to lead a single lap.
“I had a bad attitude, and he and I had a heart-to-heart conversation afterward, and I’m so proud of him for stepping up,” Gordon said. “The things that I said, the attitude I had, was just not the way we were going to get ourselves into Victory Lane. To me, that turned things around.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go and work as hard as I can, give these guys everything I’ve got because they’re working their butts off, and let’s pull it together.’ I think from that race on, we started seeing improvement, and sometimes you’ve got to have those moments, and I’m proud that we did.”
Gordon slowly pulled himself into contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and might have made it in if not for late-race shenanigans by several different drivers in the deciding race at Richmond. NASCAR chairman Brian France ultimately ruled that Gordon was unfairly affected by the manipulations and took the unprecedented step of adding him to the Chase field as a 13th driver.
He’s made the most of his chance, slowly climbing through the standings through the seven Chase races. Gordon’s win on Sunday moved him into third place, just 27 points behind Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who go to Texas Motor Speedway tied for the lead.
Gustafson called the post-New Hampshire talk a “reset.”
“We said, ‘Hey, being negative is not going to do any good, we’re going to have to go at this and be positive and fight hard and put ourselves in position and try to win some races,’” Gustafson said.
Once France put them into the Chase two days before the opening race, the focus has been forward.
“It is a special chance to compete for a championship at this level, and you don’t know how many of those you’re going to get,” Gustafson said. “When we didn’t have it for a couple days, that was one of the most terrible feelings in the world. We’re not going to squander this opportunity.”
It won’t be easy to catch Kenseth and Johnson, and Gordon knows he needs to race for wins over the final three stops.
Gustafson broached splitting with Gordon during their discussion, but Gordon said he believes in his crew chief and is proud of what they’ve accomplished this season.
“When you’re Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, a lot of people like to say things when things aren’t going well, and it makes it even tougher to be in his position,” Gordon said. “So when things aren’t going well, the toughest thing is to see him go through criticism or to criticize himself. When we’re not doing well, I can tell you, I’m not questioning him, I’m questioning myself. … Once he stops believing in me, and I stop believing in him, then we’re done. Luckily for us, that has not been the case this year, and that’s why I think we’ve been able to stay so strong and come back and be where we’re at today.”