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 this week. “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.”
ZESTFULLY CLEAN: Roush Fenway Racing on Wednesday extended its partnership with sponsor Zest into the 2015 season.
Zest, which has been with Roush since 2012, will be the primary sponsor for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for several events. Zest will also be a season-long associate on the No. 17 Ford Fusion.
“Their commitment and support has meant a great deal to me and my team, and it’s awesome that we’ll be able to continue to build on the success of this partnership going forward,” Stenhouse said.
Jim Daniels, president of Zest parent company High Ridge Brands, lauded Stenhouse and Roush-Fenway as strong ambassadors for Zest.
“This partnership delivers great value for Zest, and the passion of NASCAR fans is unmatched,” Daniels said. “It has been a privilege to be able to stand by Ricky, Jack Roush and the entire team as Ricky continues to grow into one of the sport’s marquee drivers.”
Roush announced last week that Stenhouse would return to the team next season in a three-driver lineup that will also include Greg Biffle and Trevor Bayne.
MOM’S LOVE: Dale Earnhardt had a small window to be disappointed over his ninth-place finish on Sunday at Indianapolis. He received a text message of support from his mother, Brenda, who lauded NASCAR’s most popular driver for grinding out a top-10 finish.
Earnhardt tweeted a screen grab of the text conversation with his mother. In it, she likened Earnhardt to his late father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt.
He replied: “Thanks momma. That’s the best thing I think you’ve ever told me,” to his mother’s notion that he took an inferior car and salvaged a good finish. Earnhardt also reminded her “my cars are always good.”
It was yet another example of how Earnhardt has used social media to allow his fans a deeper look at his personal life. A longtime holdout to Twitter, he joined shortly after winning the Daytona 500 in February and has routinely updated Junior Nation on his day-to-day thoughts and feelings.
In just six months, he’s amassed almost 725,000 followers, second only to Danica Patrick in NASCAR.
PENALTY REACTION: 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,” said Jeff Gordon crew chief Alan Gustafson. “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.”
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