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Crew chief keeps his hero in the hunt

Alan Gustafson grew up idolizing driver Marc Martin. Now he's helping the NASCAR veteran take one more stab at winning the Sprint Cup Series championship.

July 14, 2009|JIM PELTZ

As a kid growing up in Ormond Beach, Fla., a few miles from Daytona International Speedway, Alan Gustafson idolized NASCAR driver Mark Martin, whose autographed memorabilia cards hung in Gustafson's bedroom.

Now, Gustafson is Martin's crew chief as the 50-year-old driver takes one more stab at winning his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, which would be Gustafson's first as well.

They're definitely in the hunt, with Gustafson, 33, guiding Martin to the driver's series-high fourth win of the season Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

But they still face challenges if Martin, who drives the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, hopes to hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the season.

Despite his victories, Martin is 11th in the Cup standings -- perilously close to being outside the top 12 drivers who qualify for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff after the first 26 races of the season.

Matt Kenseth is 12th, only one point behind Martin, and the next three drivers -- Greg Biffle, David Reutimann and Clint Bowyer -- are within 126 points of Kenseth with seven more races until the Chase starts Sept. 20 in New Hampshire.

"If you take a break for a minute, these guys are going to jump all over you," Gustafson said of the competition after Martin's latest win.

Regardless, Martin's resurgence is "pretty phenomenal," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "He's just an awesome talent; he and Alan, a great combination. They just get better and better every week."

The other drivers in Hendrick's stable are three-time and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.

Yet even within that talent-laden crowd, "Alan is as smart as anybody that I've ever worked with," Hendrick said.

And for Gustafson, working with the mild-mannered, polite Martin is a far cry from Gustafson's first three years in the Cup series, when he was crew chief for Kyle Busch from Busch's rookie year in 2005 through 2007.

They first reached Victory Lane in September 2005, when Busch won his first Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, and they would win three more times together.

But the young Busch also was often short-tempered, putting pressure on Gustafson to keep his driver's irritability from undermining his driving or the morale of his crew members.

Gustafson did just that with aplomb and an unwavering confidence in his skills as crew chief, according to those who work with him. Those are traits that remain valuable when calling the shots for your boyhood hero -- as Gustafson is now doing with Martin.

Gustafson worked his way up as a mechanic through stock car racing's lower ranks and, after Hendrick hired him in 1999, through Hendrick's ranks. He was a specialist in chassis and shock absorbers, and he became the lead engineer for the No. 5 team before being named crew chief in 2005.

After the 2007 season, however, Hendrick released Busch to make room for Earnhardt, with Busch moving to the Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Because Earnhardt's then-crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., came with him to Hendrick to start the No. 88 team, Hendrick teamed Gustafson with driver Casey Mears for the 2008 season.

It was a dreary season for Gustafson and Mears, with Mears earning only one top-five finish in 36 races. Mears then moved to Richard Childress Racing, with Martin replacing him for 2009.

Martin and Gustafson started slowly this year, with Martin enduring 40th-place finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas because of blown engines.

But Martin broke through with a win at Phoenix in April. He followed that with victories at Darlington and Michigan before winning again at Chicagoland.

The question now is whether he and Gustafson can make the Chase. For his part, Martin said after Saturday's race that he would maintain an underdog's zeal.

"I'm not going to let myself get sucked into all that," Martin said of the weekly changes in the standings.

He was 13th coming into the Chicagoland race, and Martin said he could continue thinking he was 13th.

"No matter what happens going forward -- I may change my mind later -- but right now I'm leaving the track [thinking I'm in] the same points position I was last week, because it's just a roller coaster," Martin said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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