Is Charlotte Victory Lane the Final 'Dot' For the No. 24 Team?
If Jeff Gordon is to collect his fourth win in the 600-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, No. 24 Drive to End Hunger crew chief Alan Gustafson may be forced to "connect the dots."
Sunday night's event is scheduled to start just past 6 p.m. EDT, and track temperatures will likely cool through to when the checkered flag falls later that night. However, each of the practices this week will occur during daylight hours, and Gustafson believes the best source of information may have been the team's strong run in last Saturday night's All-Star event. How will he marry information learned then versus what is learned during the day practices this week?
"You mean like connect the dots?" asked Gustafson. "The All-Star race was frustrating because I think we had a legitimate shot to win the race until that last trip down pit road (Gordon lost nine positions during the stop when a No. 24 team member - who was uninjured - was clipped by another car). At the end of the day, though, the key thing for us is winning the 600, getting the most points possible from this event and contending for the championship.
"That wasn't going to happen last Saturday night since no points were on the line. But it did offer us a chance to learn as much as we could for the 600.
"We're bringing the same car back, and we know the tendencies of this car since we practiced it during the day last week and raced it at night."
Going from a day practice to a night race is one factor that makes the longest race of the season so challenging according to the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
"What is so difficult about the 600 is you are practicing during the day to try to get ready for a night race," said Gordon, who has five wins, eight poles, 16 top-fives and 20 top-10's in 36 starts at the 1.5-mile track. "You start the race in the late afternoon or early evening when the track temperature is still pretty warm, and it cools down quite a bit as you race into the night. The track conditions change dramatically.
"The setup has to be flexible and you have to stay up with the changing conditions.
"We've struggled early here before and been good at the end."
Good in the beginning? Good at the end? Gustafson is hoping the No. 24 Impala is good throughout while peaking at the right time.
"Everybody is going to try to be good at the end - obviously, that's the focus," said Gustafson. "The track 'swings' so much that it's really difficult to be good throughout the entire race. You'll 'err' toward being good at the end.
"But I've seen the flipside where you're better than expected early, and the concern is 'if you're good early, will you struggle late?' If that's the case, you try to exploit the fact you're good and get as many drivers a lap down as possible. There may be someone who is biding their time and, if you put him a lap down, it's going to significantly hamper their chance of winning.
"I think we were close to figuring out what we need to contend on Sunday night, but we need to be fast enough during the day to stay within shouting distance of the lead while also making sure we don't get too far away from the setup needed in the closing laps of the race.
"You have to be good all race long, but you need to peak the last two to three runs."
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