CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Gordon viewed his Brickyard 400 win as a turning point for his race team. Confidence had been building with every strong run, but his victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway pushed his crew to another level.
It was suddenly clear to all of them that the Sprint Cup championship is a reasonable and reachable goal.
“I think Indianapolis, we were the best car and were able to execute all day and win the race,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said Wednesday. “That gives us confidence, and I don’t want to say added incentive, but just an added confidence in our ability in what we can do moving forward.”
But Gustafson now has his work cut out for him the next six weeks. Gordon is already locked into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, which buys time to look for every ounce of speed possible and build the fastest cars they can before the opener at Chicago in September.
He must walk a fine line the next several weeks with the No. 24 team of not letting them get overconfident or lose sight of the biggest prize.
“Obviously right now you don’t want to wear the guys out,” he said. “You want to get everybody rejuvenated. But we have to continue to push on our cars and make as many technological advances as we can, improve the car as much as we can, go into the Chase with good cars and execute.”
With NASCAR switching to elimination rounds for the Chase, setting up a winner-take-all finale, it’s also important for teams to be able to handle adversity. Not being able to immediately bounce back from a bad day could get a driver booted from the Chase field.
“If something goes wrong, we have to have confidence in each other and belief in the team that we can overcome it and come back that next week,” Gustafson said. “You could be in a situation where it comes down to one race to advance. You could be in a situation where you have to do it on points or have to do it by winning the race if you have some adversity the first couple races.”
The new qualifying format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has led many to believe the severe sanctions levied against Denny Hamlin’s race team won’t have much of an impact.
Hamlin, with a victory earlier this year at Talladega, is almost certainly guaranteed a slot in the 16-driver Chase field under the new “win-and-you’re-in” system. His team was stripped of 75 points on Tuesday because his car failed inspection at Indianapolis, and the penalty dropped him from 11th to 21st in the standings.
More crushing, though, was six-race suspensions levied against crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill. Barring a win in the appeal process, neither can return to competition until the opening Chase race at Chicago in September.
The benching of two crew members during the buildup to the Chase didn’t go unnoticed in the Sprint Cup garage.
“I think for someone to say that it has no impact or it is not severe enough, that’s crazy,” Gustafson said. “I think it’s very significant. This is my livelihood, it’s Darian’s livelihood. I can’t imagine being told you can’t do it for six weeks, how you have to handle that, deal with that and what (repercussions) that creates.”
Grubb was also fined $125,000 for the infraction NASCAR deemed a P5 penalty on its new scale.
“As far as the severity of it ... anytime you see those kinds of penalties, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s huge,’” Gustafson said. “It gets your attention.”