HERB BRANHAM: Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this week’s NASCAR teleconference, this in advance of Saturday night’s 24th annual NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.
Our very special guest today with us, is the three-time All-Star Race Champion, and the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
We should also mention that Jeff’s pit crew, led by Crew Chief Steve Letarte will be competing Thursday night in Charlotte in the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
It’s pretty neat historical note to remember is that the No. 24 pit crew back in the 1990’s really helped to redefine what pit crews would be in the modern era of NASCAR with the athleticism and cohesion in teamwork. So it’s always cool to see them and that pit crew in that.
Jeff, you can become the all-time leader in All-Star victories by winning Saturday night. You have three. That ties Dale Earnhardt for the record. You’ve done so much in your career. How important would it be for you to have that record four All-Star victories?
JEFF GORDON: Well, the All-Star is always a special event. I think it’s one that the drivers take a lot of pride in how and what type of success they have in that event. I think that also the teams, they put a lot of effort and, you know, there’s no points on the line so it’s just all about the win.
To know that we’ve won it three times in the past really means a lot. And those have been all very special occasions and events for me to be a part of in the past. To do anything that Dale Earnhardt’s done and be in that same category, certainly, even more special.
We’d love to get another one. I never really look at events as stats and trying to break records and that, I look at it as it is a race that we want to win badly, and it is the next race on the schedule. Hopefully, we can pull it off.
Q: I have a question for you that’s off subject from the All-Star race, so I apologize starting it off this way. I wondered if you could tell me a little bit. Do the road course races you guys run now feel different today in that it’s a lot more competitive? There used to be a couple of you guys that were really good on it, maybe four or five. But now with the road racing guys here, as well as, I think is it fair to say that NASCAR, in general, that the drivers in the cup series in general have raised the game in terms of their racing? If you could describe to me the difference you feel today versus maybe ten years ago?
JEFF GORDON: No, there’s no doubt that I think everybody puts a lot more effort into the road course program, including the drivers. I think that it really started back probably mid to late ’90s when, you know, you really saw people recognizing the road races as races that were important towards the Championship. And could be races that you could really capitalize on and make a lot of points up and get those victories.
Instead of just always seeing the road course veterans and guys that come in that could compete and having a few of the Cup guys that were competitive. Now you see so many different drivers and teams that are capable of winning there. Of course, the new car, the new Impala SS, that car also has made things equal and much tougher to get an edge on the competition. So I look at the road course as being competitive races these days more so than ever.
Q: The All-Star race has always been so big. I wonder how much of that is the lure to winning this thing? And if it didn’t pay as much, would it still be as big of a deal as it is?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. I think that if you just take the history and prestige of this event and knowing that it’s our All-Star event and whoever wins it, you know, is considered an All-Star driver or team. I think that it could pay $1, and everybody would still go all out. I mean, we’re just that fierce of competitors when we get out there on the racetrack.
I think the fact that there’s money on the line might bring a little more excitement to it, because I think it sort of dangles that carrot out in front of you and makes you go after it that much harder. When you know there’s no points on the line, it’s all about the win. And, of course, having some bonus money to go along with that from Sprint certainly makes things very appealing.
Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that burnouts aren’t necessarily your thing. First of all, are you competing in the burnout competition? And second of all, do you think all that rubber being laid down on the track is going to affect the racing at all?
JEFF GORDON: I’m not exactly sure where they’re doing the burnout contest at. I’ve heard about it. I was asked about it, and I did decline just because, you know, I am terrible at doing them.
I’m curious to watch it and see how it goes. You know, I think that, you know, it’s Humpy at his best always creates exciting fun things to do, and I think this is one of them. I felt like I’ve got enough on my plate. I just didn’t see where I wanted to add any more to all the other things that we have going on. But I’m really looking forward to watching the other guys.
No matter where it is on the track, it’s not going to affect the racing at all. I don’t know — I’m pretty sure they’re not doing it in a corner. So the only place that the rubber, if it does get laid down like that on the racetrack would really affect us would be in the corners.
Q: You mentioned a moment ago the difference between the points and the money in this race. Does the fact that there aren’t any points here make you race any differently? Will you take some chances that you might not normally take next weekend or the weekend after?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. You got to realize that every weekend that we’re out there racing, we want to win. We want to get the best finish we can. But we have to consider points and think about the big picture. Especially with the Chase now. You’ve got to get yourself into that chase in order to be a threat for the championship.
So when you have a race, there’s no points on the line, and, you know, it’s all about the prestige and history and excitement about that event. Plus the money that Sprint puts up on the line for that race.
It’s all for the fans. You know, it’s about putting on a great show for the fans. And to do that, you’re going to push harder, take Morris beings, take chances and do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Because you know if you come out of there with a wrecked race car or a bad finish, it’s really not going to affect you.
Q: I wanted to ask you about Kyle Busch. Somebody told me the boos for him at Darlington were worse than the boos you see sometimes. That kind of stunned me. I’m wondering, first of all, obviously, he has different equipment, but he had good equipment last year. Is this a sign that he’s a better driver? Is he smarter out there? Is he more mature? And if he’s the next great villain in this sport?
JEFF GORDON: He certainly could be if he handles it correctly. I don’t think anybody sets out to be a villain. I think that nobody wants boos. But what you do want to do is stand out. And you want to do it by winning races, being competitive out there, and sometimes you might ruffle some feathers along the way.
He definitely has that personality that could be the villain, you know. In a different way than, you know, certainly not a Dale Earnhardt Sr.-type of way. I think that he’s young, and, you know, sometimes he says things that don’t always go over well, and sometimes on the racetrack, his aggressiveness, you know, can get him in trouble. But those same things allow him to have great success.
One thing is for sure, that Gibbs is on top of their game this year. I mean, they had three extremely strong race cars out there this past weekend. And Kyle is the next race car driver, and those guys are doing a great job. So nothing should take away from the talent that he has, and what Gibbs is bringing to the table as far as equipment and race teams.
But I think time will tell. It’s one of those things where, you know, I think a lot of people didn’t expect the boos and all of these things. Of course, we all know why that’s ramped up as much as it has. Because of the wreck between he and Dale Jr. So I would be curious to see how that sort of goes forward. What happens with that going forward and how it comes together. It could be something that could work in his favor if he handles it correctly.
Q: Have you noticed any changes in him as a driver? He’s driving a different style or what is it now from what you saw last year?
JEFF GORDON: I haven’t seen anything change. He bounced off walls all last year, too (laughing). He just wasn’t in the kind of equipment that he’s in this year. I’m saying that, knowing that, you know, Hendrick Motorsports has the best equipment out there.
But we’re not up to par this year with the competition, not with Gibbs or Roush. We’re working diligently to turn that around and change that. Just, you know, shows you how competitive this series truly is. And the competition’s gone to work, and they’ve gotten ahead of us. We just, you know, we just don’t have that edge that we had last year, and we’re working hard to get it back.
Gibbs, you know, has got it. So in a lot of ways, I know that Kyle wasn’t happy about the way things turned out at Hendrick, but it’s really fallen into place for him. And he should probably be thankful. Because, I mean, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in right now if he was still at Hendrick. We just, we have some work to do to get to that point.
Q: Did the challenges that you have at this level, do they get routine with the years of experience, or is every race another adventure to you?
JEFF GORDON: Every race is an adventure, for sure. But, you know, you could have gone off last year’s stats and success that we had and said oh, boy, Jimmie Johnson’s going to win the Championship again, and Jeff Gordon’s going to run good. Dale Jr.’s going to run. All the Hendrick cars are going to be strong. And, you know, dominate like we did last year.
But it just is proof that that just isn’t always the case. You can’t predict these things. You don’t know which teams are going to hit on something, and that’s going to really fall into place for them, and which teams are going to rise to the occasion, which ones are going to fall by the wayside.
The one thing I know about Hendrick is that we’re never, I shouldn’t say never, but I don’t feel like we’re going to fall by the wayside, just sometimes we’re going to get behind and behind for us is to be teams that win a few races or are in the top 5, top 10 in points. But, you know, we’re always going to be able to be in a position to get it back.
So maybe our peaks and our valleys might not be as big or drop as much as some others. But I think that it just shows you how competitive things are out there. When a team as strong as ours is getting beat out there, but we know that we’ve got the ingredients and tools to get it back. I applaud those other teams out there for getting the jump that they have, and being as strong as they can that they are right now.
That’s what I love about the Chase. This is the flip side to what we’ve had in past years, for our team, anyway, with the Chase where the Chase is kind of gotten the best of us. This year, I hope it actually falls in favor of the type of season we’ve started out with – a slow start. Hopefully, we can get ourselves solid in the top 12, and, be the team to beat when it really counts, which is in the last ten races.
Q: Sort of in the same vain, I was wondering, has anything surprised you so far this year, for example, any drivers that are doing better than you expected or worse than you expected? Or anything else that sort of caught you off guard so far after 11 races?
JEFF GORDON: You know, I focus so much on our own program and our own organization that, you know, honestly, I don’t put a lot of effort into thinking about what, you know, guys are big surprises. Except for the guys that are winning the races, and those aren’t necessarily surprises.
Even with Kyle, I mean, I’ve always known him to be a strong, talented driver. The only thing that’s usually gotten in his way is just his youthfulness and aggressiveness that sometimes forced him to push too hard and make mistakes. We’ve seen that happen this year already, but he’s still leading the points and still winning races.
I think Carl Edwards is stronger than we thought he would be. I thought we knew that they’d be strong, but they’ve been even better than we anticipated.
I think I’m a little bit surprised that the 48 Team has had the ups and the downs that they’ve had this year. I thought they’d be stronger. And I think Junior’s been — he’s come out of the box more consistent and stronger than I expected them to as well.
So I mean if there are any surprises, those would be it. Matt Kenseth, a little bit of a surprise the fact that they haven’t been better than what they’ve been. He’s a very strong, consistent driver. We’ve seen him struggle along with myself this year.
Q: How close did you pay attention to what’s going on with Indy during the month of May?
JEFF GORDON: I just flip on the TV from time to time when we have time at the racetrack to watch what’s going on. I watched a little bit of pole day, and saw the Ganassi cars get the pole. But, I mean, I love racing. I try to follow as many forms of racing as I possibly can. But I can’t say I know all of the little details about it.
Q: Let’s face it, you really have had some bad luck this year. Now you’re heading into other tracks that, you know, you’ve been successful at. Like in June, you’ll be over at Michigan International Speedway. You’ve got two wins there. You ranked third in leading laps over there. Do you look at places like MIS where you’ve done very well and try to build confidence? Or how in the heck do you keep it out of your mind and your head from saying, well, what problem is going to happen next?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, you know, I’ve always been a big believer that you make your own luck. I think that through preparation, you know, commitment, and just a lot of hard work by putting yourself in good positions is what’s going to determine the outcome of your day.
You could look at Las Vegas. I mean, I knew my car was tight. I didn’t really want to go to the inside on that final restart, but with Junior bobbling on the restart, kind of didn’t have a choice. And I put myself into that position that caused that wreck. So I don’t blame anybody but myself on that one.
At Texas, we were just, we were way off. We just did not have a good car and a good set-up that day. You know, the results show for it. So none of those things are luck or bad luck in my opinion. Ever since then it’s been a wake-up call. We’ve been working really hard, doing a lot of testing. I think that also forms a lot of team building.
I think this past weekend, the last two weeks, really, have shown the results of that. I mean, we had to fight hard for that 9th place finish at Richmond. Typically you’d say well, 9th place, not a good finish for us. But where we started, where we’ve been lately and how hard we had to fight to get that, to me, that was a great finish.
This past weekend the same way, we were not a 3rd place car, but our pit crew was that amazing on pit road. Steve Letarte did a great job just keeping the team together, making good calls, and we pulled out a great top 5 finish there.
We are still not where we need to be to be competitive enough to dominate or to win the number of races that I felt like we could win this year. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not fighting hard and working hard and still putting expectations on us to pull it over. So there are tracks coming up that are good tracks for us, and with the hard work and confidence we have at those tracks, hopefully we can get some things turned around.
Q: Going back to the days of T-Rex and the All-Star race, this is kind of like an R & D session for a lot of teams.
JEFF GORDON: Right.
Q: Is it now to the point where you come to this race with the idea that if we have to destroy this car, we’ll do it, let’s just try to win this thing?
JEFF GORDON: Yes, well, you can’t win the race without a race car in one piece. But you know in the All-Star event you push the limits from a driver’s standpoint, from the set-up. The one area that I will say all of us are probably going to experiment in, because we are so limited these days, is under the hood in the engine department. We can push the limit there. We can have an engine that doesn’t have to go as many miles so, we can make some more power with less reliability. Or it could be something that we’re even trying to test for the future for the 600 or races down the road.
But to me, the attitude has always been, you know, you push as hard as you possibly can, all the way to the limit without — without having as many thoughts in the back of your mind. I mean, the thoughts are always there — you don’t want to crash. But the thought has even been double that in most races, because you’re thinking don’t crash because it’s not worth it because of the points, and you need those points.
So now it’s just push, push, push, don’t wreck, because you’ve got to win the race, and you’ve got to be in one piece to win it. But if you do, you’ll get into a position where that move is going to win you the race. You’re going to push a little harder, and that might cause you to lose traction and lose control, and have that wreck. So those are the things you think about a little bit more.
Q: You brought up the wreck in Vegas. I’m wondering if you have any, I don’t know, lingering effects of that? Anything that sticks with you about that? And did that wreck tell you it’s time for NASCAR to mandate soft walls everywhere?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think it’s just something that, you know, any time a crash happens we try to learn from it as a team. I feel like NASCAR learns from it, and the racetracks learn from it, folks in Nebraska learn from it. So I just think that’s something that should open the eyes up to every racetrack when those situations happen. Say, okay, do we have any of these concerns at our racetrack? And what can we do about it? What type of timely fashion can we do it in? What is the cost going to be and what are the benefits going to be?
So I will say I’m very proud of Lowe’s Motor Speedway that they put soft walls on the inside wall on the back straightaway before we even tested last week. So that’s a great thing. I hear they’ve made some changes to Las Vegas. So I mean, these folks are doing the job that needs to be done.
I’m curious when we go to some other tracks, we always saw at Richmond, you know, that there was an opening that we didn’t think we could get to, and Carpentier got to it. So all of those things you learn from each time it happens and it needs to be addressed. If they’re not addressed, you know, then the drivers or somebody’s going to come down on them for not taking care of those issues. Because we focus so much on competition, but we’ve got to remember safety as well.
Q: Every few years it seems like there’s a new group of drivers that comes in and kind of takes over the top of the sport for a while. Do you think that’s happening a little bit this year with Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin being off to such a strong start?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. I think it’s been a trend ever since car owners took more risk on younger drivers. I think the set-ups and the aggressiveness of a driver, because of the cars and the way they drive these days, can be very beneficial. You know, you take young talents like those guys. You put them in good equipment, you know, they’re going to push hard. And especially if you get a few years of experience under the belt, those are going to be the guys that are going to do very well. And are only going to continue to do well and be real true players and possible champions in our series.
Ever since those car owners have been taking that chance, you know, it’s been — it’s not always easy. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. But it has allowed those guys to excel and open up the doors for other young guys to excel as well.
You know, there is so much that goes into the business side of it, from sponsorships, to talent, great teams, you know, all those things. When you get the right combination, you get a Carl Edwards at Roush. You get Tony Stewart, or even take a young guy like Hamlin and Busch at Gibbs, and Jimmie Johnson over here at Hendrick. I mean, those guys, you put them in the right equipment they’re going to do very well. I think it should tell those car owners that these are the guys we need to be looking for in the future, because this is what’s going to help our team excel. It’s going to help us get sponsorship, and it’s going to keep our team alive and successful.
Q: In the last few races it seems that later in the race your car really comes alive. Would you attribute that to more anticipating the changing track conditions, or just the communication between you and Steve Letarte?
JEFF GORDON: I think most of it is communication between Steve and myself. He’s a great crew chief. I don’t think he gets enough credit out there. He’s very sharp when it comes to making those split-second decisions and calls on pit road that can get you those extra positions as well as have a strong car at the end.
Then my pit crew – It’s all about having the right stop at the right time. This past week at Darlington, they were right every time. They were awesome in the pits. At Richmond we probably should have taken two tires there at the end instead of four. But it still worked out pretty good for us. Again, it’s about timing and communication.
I think a strong team is always going to be there and be a threat at the end. I feel like not only us with the DuPont Chevrolet, but all the Hendrick cars. I felt like they’re just strong teams. In the long run they’re going to work their way to the front.
HERB BRANHAM: Jeff Gordon, thank you for taking time out and joining us. And best of luck Saturday night trying to win that All-Star race for the record fourth time.
JEFF GORDON: We’re looking forward to it. Thanks a lot.