Last offseason, before Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson had any inkling of the challenging year which lay before them, the pair had an "I love you, man" talk.
Those words weren't actually spoken, but the message was the same: Gordon and Gustafson promised to do whatever it took to succeed together.
"We just made a commitment to one another," Gordon said. "We're after the same goals. We enjoy working with one another and believe in one another. Through thick and thin."
Gordon, speaking Friday at Watkins Glen, joked he and Gustafson "may have had a couple glasses of wine" during the conversation.
"But we meant what we said," he added.
That vow has been severely tested so far in 2012, as Gordon was winless and out of the Chase conversation until a victory in the rain-shortened Pocono race last week. Now, with five races remaining until NASCAR's playoff, he's very much in position to pull off a Chase berth if he can win again.
But how did Gordon and Gustafson's relationship survive the team's struggles? Driver/crew chief combinations are fragile enough that even Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne – who almost won the championship last year – recently parted ways (Osborne cited health reasons).
"If hadn't performed as well as we have with really fast race cars, there probably would have been a change," Gordon said. "But because we've run so well and it's been different things keeping us from not having better results, it allowed us to be frustrated...but still stick together.
"On Monday or Tuesday after the race weekend – depending on how it went – it was right back to business and positive attitudes. That's what's kept us together."
Gustafson, who has worked with drivers such as Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, said Gordon is the "most level-headed" of any driver he'd ever worked with.
"He understands the ups and downs and the big picture better than any other driver I've been around," Gustafson said. "So he's the easiest guy to work through these things, because he's always focused on what's going to be the best for the team – not stomping his feet and throwing stuff around and pointing the finger. That's never going to improve your position or help you."
Gordon said he questioned at times whether the team's misfortune and repeated setbacks this season were some sort of test or whether it was a sign the driver/crew chief combination wasn't working out. He thought to himself: "Does a change need to happen or are we doing the right things and just have to stick with it?"
Given the speed in the cars and the strong performance, Gordon was able to brush the disappointing results aside and keep fighting more readily than if the team was missing the setup every week.
Gustafson said Gordon always seemed to understand the team was trying as hard as possible. It would be different, he said, if someone was out late in the casino and missed a team meeting. At that point, fingers would be pointed and accusations made that someone wasn't pulling his weight.
That was never the case for the No. 24 team, though, and Gordon saw that – even in moments like at the Dover race, when a chance at the win slipped through his fingers due to a pit crew error.
"Look, I know he's frustrated," Gustafson said. "It's not a secret. But he's a very strong individual. He's got self-control. A lot of those drivers who blow up and want to berate the team and go off on the pit crew, they think they're tough and they're going to take charge.
"They don't realize that's weakness. What Jeff does is strength."
That's not to say Gordon doesn't have ideas for things the team should do differently. But instead of screaming that everyone is fired on the team radio, Gustafson said the two will talk it over behind closed doors and try to come up with a solution. That's a positive way to approach problem-solving, Gustafson said – and a more constructive one.
"Some people think when drivers lose their self-control it's 'passion,'" Gustafson said. "And you have to have that, but I'd argue with anybody – he's got more passion for this sport than anybody. He just knows what it takes to persevere and do what's best for the team and get the most out of the team."
That includes actually being part of the team, Gustafson said. Other drivers encourage their crew but view their own responsibilities as separate, and that can create an internal battle whenever something goes wrong. Gordon, though, has made it clear he'll do anything for the team – and his guys will run through a wall for him because of it.
"If he said, 'I need this,' these guys in here would race to do it for him," Gustafson said. "And that's because he does it for those other guys."
After winning Pocono, Gordon is optimistic about his Chase hopes but realizes he and his team have a long way to go. Whatever happens, though, they'll do it together.
"Right now I look at it and go, ‘I'm glad some of these things have happened to us,'" Gordon said.