Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Pepsi Max Chevrolet SS, met with members of the media at Phoenix International Raceway, and discussed the new Pepsi Max video, new qualifying format and other topics.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THE NEW TEST DRIVE VIDEO THAT PEPSI RELEASED? “It’s been a fun week coming off the Daytona 500 finish and then knowing that Pepsi was going to be releasing this video. I’m so proud of them for believing in us and taking risk to step outside the boundaries and what they call maxing it out and they definitely did. It was a lot of fun, but it was nerve wracking because we had one take to do that and pull it off. There was a lot involved, but the results are really, really good. Having fun with it this week and can’t wait to get this race started this week, especially qualifying today. I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time.”WHEN DID YOU GO TO ACTING SCHOOL? DID YOU HAVE FUN PLAYING THE CONVICT AND WERE YOU WORRIED AT ALL THAT THE GUY WAS GOING TO GO CRAZY? “I like good editing because they can make me look as good as I can look. The acting was pretty poor if you look at it from my standpoint, but when you get into makeup like that and they put this disguise on you and the tattoo and the outfit and everything, you start to get comfortable in it once you’re in it long enough. Right before I picked up Travis we basically went through one run of how everything was going to go hopefully, there’s a lot of things you can’t prepare for. You start to try to get into that character.
I’m no actor, but I did the best I could and luckily the disguise helped me pull it off. You have to understand, this thing was like eight months in the making. After the first test drive was so popular then Pepsi Max came to me and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this again?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I want to do all the driving.’ I think it’s known that we had to have a stunt driver for timing purposes in the first one and I would love to do this thing as the driver throughout the whole thing. Obviously coordinating that and figuring out who we were going to get in the car and how we were going to do it, it really started out as a fan promotion. We were just going to get fans in the car and not necessarily prank them in this case, but just give them a really cool ride. It started materializing and coming together.
“Safety was the first thing on the list of concerns. Making sure that we did this with all safety precautions. Making sure that he didn’t recognize who I was and we went through Jalopnik to get Travis there. If they hadn’t have been a part of it, this thing would have never happened. When I look at it, how we pulled this off is near impossible and the fact that we were able to pull it off and at the end of the day Travis had a big smile on his face finally was what made it so extraordinary. It was an adrenaline rush for me. An hour later I felt like I had just won the Daytona 500. Just that kind of feeling you get when you’re in that kind of a situation. We had a safe word, which was Nebraska. I didn’t come up with it.
They said, here’s the word. I had an earpiece where I could hear the crew talking, they could hear us and see video live of what was going on inside the car and so there was that moment that if it got to that point we called that word and it all stopped and when I first took off and I hit about 80 miles per hour and he started kicking that glass, I came this close. You don’t know what that situation is going to be like until you have that person in the back of the car that is really scared. I just knew that it’s all going to be over very quick and luckily when I opened that door and saw that smile on his face, it made it all worth it.”
HOW DO YOU THINK QUALIFYING WILL UNFOLD TODAY? “That’s the whole question and I don’t really have an answer for it because we have to go through it a few times, not just today. It’s going to change week to week based on the grip level of the tires, the size of the track and all those things. I’m excited about the concept and I’m excited about how it is going to be so much different and I think it’s going to create a lot more interest in qualifying, but it’s the unknowns that we fear the most right now. I think for that first session it’s going to be about getting a clean lap. The ability to have a lot of cars out there trying to make laps, it’s kind of going to be like practice making qualifying runs except for everybody is in qualifying trim.
Usually we swap over and guys maybe do their qualifying runs at the beginning, some do it at the end and to have everybody trying to do it all at once is going to be tricky. Coordination between the spotter and the driver and the crew of making that first clean run, I think really two or three laps seems to be best here with sticker tires and pressures up, but you’re definitely going to be able to make a second run if need be. The bigger challenge there comes with cooling. We have no way of cooling the car other than pulling the tape off and going out and driving around with no tape on, which I think that is going to be tough to pull off. That’s going to be something that we’re all going to try to figure out. It should be exciting.”
DO THE TEAMS KNOW WHAT THEY ALL HAVE WITH THE NEW AERO PACKAGE? “All I can tell you is what testing that we’ve done this has improved grip. There’s challenges as far as trying to figure out the travels and the splitter heights and those types of things. Everything I’m seeing, it complements the car, the track, the tire, the downforce is just making the cars drive better so we should be able to just push the limits a little bit harder, be more aggressive. What that’s going to do around in traffic, that’s yet to be seen. I always think of this place, especially double file restarts, you should have more grip to be able to play with in general, but the same things are going to apply as you get further back in the field you’re going to have less grip from an aero standpoint. Should still be better because that splitter is lower, you don’t get as much ability of the air to get up underneath it.”
HOW MANY LAWYERS HAD TO APPROVE THE VIDEO AND HOW DID IT GET DONE? “That’s why this was an eight month process and why I applaud Pepsi so much in stepping outside those boundaries to be that risky. Sometimes you have to take risk in order for it to pay off and luckily in this case it paid off. The coordination of getting Travis there without knowing what was going to happen, but yet also taking into account liability and waivers and all those things, obviously we still had to get his final signature at the end, but we had everything else in place with Pepsi Max. Again, to just get it to that stage is impressive enough.
To actually then get Travis in the car, create this conversation that we didn’t know how that was going to go to try to set it up with me saying I’m an ex-con and just got out of jail with a guy from Jersey and some of that stuff, that all just creates the storyline. You can’t make that stuff up. You can plan, you can do certain things, but you can’t plan for the unknown. That’s why there was such an adrenaline rush with it and the fact that I knew I had this guy’s safety in my hands. I put a lot of pride into making sure that it was done safe and so did Pepsi Max. I don’t know if you’ll ever see this done again, I’ll be honest, because it was that risky. We did it and we can now laugh and Travis can laugh about it and we can all enjoy the risk that paid off.”
WHY DID YOU WANT TO DO THIS? “I like stepping outside the boundaries. I think that when it’s something like this. We did the first video and when you look at all the comments from the first video, I think that it was really the bloggers, the media, the fans, it was everybody really challenging us to go and do this because of their comments of saying, ‘Hey, Jeff wasn’t driving the car or this or that wasn’t real.’ Guess what, here’s the results of that because we wanted to go out there and show everybody how authentic and how real this can be. Why would we do that? It’s a good question, but I can tell you it was a blast doing it and I think the response that it’s getting certainly speaks for itself. I was questioning that a few times myself during it so I know people are going to question that, but after it was over and we came sliding in, I was like, wow, that was the most incredible thing that I’ve ever done.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT DALE EARNHARDT JR. THIS WEEK NOW THAT HE HAS JOINED TWITTER? “I think we all knew that once he got on it that he would probably enjoy it. It looks like he’s enjoying it. I’ve never seen the guy with a permanent smile on his face like this before. To see how much it means to him to win that race, to be on top of the sport like he is and it be just genuinely comfortable with himself and confident, that’s very, very cool. That to me, that’s great for the sport, it’s great for him, great for Hendrick. We’ve all had smiles on our faces and enjoying this week right along with him. Seeing him on Twitter is something that a lot of us have been pushing him towards, ‘C’mon man, you can do it.’ I think winning the Daytona 500 is a great way to get that kick started so I applaud him on that. He’s done a great job this week.”
HOW DOES BEING LOCKED IN THE CHASE CHANGE HOW DALE EARNHARDT JR. CAN APPROACH THE NEXT 25 WEEKS? “There’s no doubt, this sport is so much about confidence and believing in one another. We’ve all said that one race doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything, but boy with the new points system it certainly guarantees a lot. That allows you to continue to build that confidence and just push the envelope of your setups, your pit strategy, how you’re driving and with the kind of confidence he has coming from last year and now off of this race, you would think that will transfer over to the next several races. Now we get to the downforce tracks and if those guys perform well on these next few tracks, watch out. I think anything is possible.”
HOW WILL YOU APPROACH QUALIFYING CONCERNING THE ENGINES? “We’re going to have to go through this for a few weeks and I don’t mean just the teams but NASCAR as well to try to understand what challenges come along. I don’t think we should be nosed in to start the qualifying session. I think we should be nosed out. After that, I understand the nose in. The other thing is the cooling. There are safety precautions that they are wanting to take and that’s why we’re not cooling the cars and the number of people on pit road and all those things, but if we want to keep in mind the longevity and reliability of the engines and keeping the highest performance, if we want to go out and make multiple runs then we have to cool those engines down.
That’s how we make qualifying runs and you have to run the most tape you possibly can on the front of the car. Going out there and making a second run on older tires with less tape is not going to improve your time. I think that’s something that as we get through we’re all going to be communicating with NASCAR to try to figure out what’s going to be the best way for the teams to go out there and get the best lap as well as keep it as entertaining as possible.”
HOW GOOD DID IT FEEL TO GET A TOP-FIVE FINISH AT DAYTONA? “It felt amazing. It seems like not just in the 500, but in the 400 as well it’s just been so long since we’ve been able to be in position at the end to have a chance at it. Especially the way that race went down, it was a crazy race after the rain. It was like a 10-lap shootout. Just every single lap three wide, bump drafting and the fact that we survived those wrecks and had a strong car and to come out of there with a top-five, I’m still not sure and haven’t seen the video of why we’re not third. I’m also still accepting of fourth because of what we’ve done the last nine years by not only having a top-five, but like a top-15. It’s been really hard to get our season started with any momentum after coming out of Daytona so far behind. That’s a great way for us to get started. I can just see a difference in the team. The team is really pumped up and excited to go to these next several races and show what we can do.”
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN PRACTICE KNOWING TOMORROW IS LOOKING TO BE A RAIN OUT? “I agree and it is just taking what is already a challenging day trying to get prepared for this new qualifying session and taking it to a whole other level for all of us, but especially the crew chiefs and engineers. We’re going to try to balance out that track time of preparing for this race, we’re going to have to go off of old notes. We always say that, but the ride heights have changed and a lot of things have changed with the setup so I’m not sure. I know that there will just be a time when we swap over. Really in a perfect world you would actually want to wait and get as much rubber on the track as possible to get ready for the race.
That’s why we love Saturday practices. Today because we have to get ready for qualifying and track position being so important at this track, qualifying is extremely important. In some ways, it’s going to prioritize itself over the race practice or portion of the practice. Not everybody might play it that way and that’s what I love about this. It really makes you think about your strategy and how you’re going to go about managing the time that you have. Again, we learn as we go. We might find a team does it one way that we didn’t think of it that way, wow, that’s really smart and in the future we might do it that way.”
HOW MUCH GAMESMANSHIP IS ALLOWABLE IN THE NEW QUALIFYING FORMAT AND WHERE IS THE LINE? “I think that gamesmanship when it comes to qualifying is about one-upping one another with a lap time not about blocking or doing something that is trying to hurt somebody else’s laps. I don’t know if that’s what you mean from gamesmanship. In my opinion, that’s not tolerated at all, but as I clearly read in NASCAR’s notes or memo, it looks like we’re going to take care of that ourselves. We’ll see how that works. It seems to work pretty well when they allow us to take care of it ourselves.
Usually doesn’t happen more than once. That is definitely going to be a play here today not necessarily people intentionally doing it, people not being able to prevent it. That’s my concern. After you finish your lap, there could be somebody coming behind you and if you just mosey on around one and two and through the dog leg and don’t get off the track, that’s to me a gray area in NASCAR’s mind and not so gray if I’m the guy behind. That person should know well enough to watch his mirrors, work with his spotter or her to get off the track and allow those cars to get their clean lap. I don’t anticipate somebody playing that offense and defense on this track, maybe at Talladega or Daytona I could see that from a drafting standpoint, but here it should be just about respecting your competitors.”
DID HENDRICK PRACTICE THE NEW QUALIFYING ANYWHERE? “It’s not like we’re just going blind and saying, ‘We’ll just wait and see what happens.’ No, we can’t simulate that because we don’t have 43 cars or more at a track to test and go through that. There’s a lot of simulation that we’ve gone into with cooling and understanding the amount of tape that we can run. We’ve gone through a lot with this tire at this particular track and when we think it’s going to be at its best optimal pressure and temperature, but we can’t really control what the other cars are doing. That’s the factor that comes into play that is going to be so interesting and that we’re going to just have to see what happens as we go. We can’t simulate that even at a test. We did not do that.”