Commentary

Gustafson's star rising fast

Updated: September 22, 2009, 4:35 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Is Alan Gustafson the new Chad Knaus?

Knaus has the reputation as the best crew chief in the Sprint Cup garage, but his Hendrick Motorsports buddy is close to pushing Knaus off his throne.

Mark Martin leads the Chase for many reasons -- pure driving skill, maturity and experience on the racetrack, and the best equipment of his career.

Given all those things, Martin was bound to do well this season. But he would not be at the top of the playoff rung without Gustafson on the pit box.

[+] EnlargeAlan Gustafson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonHigh-fives have been a common occurrence among crew chief Alan Gustafson, center, and the 5 team.

"I've worked with great engineers and really smart people," Martin said Sunday after his victory at New Hampshire. "But he's the strongest combination of all that."

When Martin got out of the car Sunday, the first thing he said was, "Alan won this race."

Well, Martin did have a little to do with it, holding off several challenges for the lead on dangerous double-file restarts in the final laps. But his point was he wouldn't have been out front with a chance to win without Gustafson making the right call on pit strategy.

Halfway through the race, Gustafson elected not to pit under yellow so Martin could gain much-needed track position. It was a gamble, but it worked.

"Pitting there was not going to do us any good," Gustafson said Sunday. "We were just going to be in the same place we were with the same tires the guys around us had. "We had to try to flip the track position on them, and when we took that opportunity to do it, we knew everybody had to stop again."

Martin didn't have the best car Sunday, but he did have the best crew chief. "Alan really pulled off something big in figuring out how to win a race with me here at Loudon," Martin said. "I don't get around this place that well."

Martin never had won at New Hampshire in 25 previous starts on the 1-mile oval. He hadn't won at Chicagoland Speedway before his victory there in July.

He won the June race at Michigan when Gustafson outsmarted the field on fuel strategy.

Gustafson is making the right call time and time again, leading a man he believes in 100 percent. Sound familiar? It should.

He's doing the same thing Knaus has done in leading Johnson to three consecutive championships -- constantly thinking two moves ahead of the competition, not getting flustered when the pressure's on, making the most of every opportunity on the track.

And, most importantly, overcoming adversity.

Gustafson has made one major mistake all season, trying to duplicate the June fuel run in the August Michigan race. The No. 5 team fell one lap short and finished 31st. At the time, it put Martin in a precarious spot on the Chase bubble.

Afterward, Gustafson was crestfallen.

"I blew it," Gustafson said, hanging his head. "I had a chance to top off [with fuel]. If I would have, we probably would have finished second at worst, if not won. So there's no way to make it pretty, or nice.

"It cost our team a lot of points, and it's on my shoulders. I feel terrible about it because I blew it. There's no other way to put it."

In a 36-race season, even the best of the best will make a call or two they regret. But Gustafson took the heat and never looked back.

Martin never blamed Gustafson. He knew Gustafson got him this far -- and would get him the rest of the way.

"I have a lot of trust in Alan," Martin said. "I let him do his thing, and he's brought so much support in so many areas, unloading so much off of my shoulders."

Guiding an exceptional race car driver isn't new for 34-year-old Gustafson. He's been down this path before with the driver many people in NASCAR consider the most talented racer in the sport -- Kyle Busch.

But Martin gives Gustafson something he never had before -- complete trust and loyalty, plus a driver who won't get flustered when things don't go his way.

Gustafson had to live through the rowdiest years of Busch's career. In three seasons as Busch's crew chief, Gustafson led Busch to Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 and back-to-back Chase appearances in 2006 and 2007.

But it was a volatile experience, always trying to keep Busch's temper in check and rein in his emotions. It wasn't easy, but it probably made Gustafson a better leader.

He just needed the right driver to show what he could do.

"You have to have everything 100 percent in this sport to win," Gustafson said Sunday. "And the driver is the key component in that."

Gustafson didn't have that component last year in Casey Mears. But getting the opportunity to work with Martin this season was like winning the lottery for Gustafson.

"In my opinion, Mark is the best driver out there," Gustafson said. "He proves that time and time again, no matter what situation it is."

Ever-humble Martin never would say that about himself. He will say he is a better driver today because of Gustafson.

Martin signed an extension with Hendrick Motorsports last week, agreeing to stay in the No. 5 Chevy through the 2011 season. Martin said he would not have done so without assurances that Gustafson would continue to lead the team.

Give Rick Hendrick credit for pairing wily old Martin with young and ambitious Gustafson, a man Hendrick praised earlier this year as "one of the smartest ever to work in our organization."

The mark of a good crew chief is taking your driver to heights he never had reached before. Gustafson just might do that for 50-year-old Martin, a historic championship moment almost everyone would love to see.

But Knaus wants the historic moment for his driver, hoping to lead Jimmie Johnson to an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title. Earlier this year, Knaus said Gustafson was "one of the best crew chiefs out here."

Maybe he's the best crew chief now. Maybe he's the new Knaus.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

ALSO SEE