JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DRIVE TO END HUNGER CHEVROLET, met with members of the media at Homestead Miami Speedway and discussed the championship battle, the season overall and other topics.
Prior to his media availability, Jeff was on stage with Daryl Wolfe, Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer, ISC, and Jo Ann Jenkins, President, AARP Foundation, to discuss the Drive To End Hunger Program which donated nearly four million meals in its first season involved with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and Jeff. They raised more than $13.7 million dollars to end hunger among older Americans, 25 percent coming from individual donors.
WHEN YOU STARTED IN RACING DID YOU THINK MOST OF YOUR JOB WOULD BE ABOUT GIVING BACK TO OTHERS?: “No, not at all. I will say that being introduced to NASCAR, in the first year going back to Nationwide, giving back I saw was something that was important and was a big part of the sport and part of the driver’s role. Never did I imagine it getting to this level and actually getting the opportunity to be sponsored by a cause and such an important one. Being able to go week in and week out and encourage fans to do something good. It’s been an incredible experience, but because of my efforts with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, it just made it seamless and so natural and one that I really couldn’t wait for the opportunity to come our way and see all the good things we can do. It’s been successful from that standpoint for sure.”
HOW HAS YOUR YEAR BEEN SO FAR?: “Thank you Kerry (Tharp, NASCAR PR) for those kind remarks. It’s easy to be here at the final race of the season with all the focus on the championship and for us to be hanging our heads and think about the disappointments, but I’m also reminded and encouraged of how great of a year this has been for us. With the three wins -- we did have incredible momentum coming into the Chase so I think as a competitor and as a race team, we certainly are very focused on what we did wrong and what we’re going to do to make it better next year and how we’re going to finish out this season with a win here in Homestead. We are also going to pat ourselves on the back for the great work that we’ve done this year with the Drive to End Hunger as well as the momentum we’ve been able to build. New crew chief, new team basically and win the three races and be as competitive as we’ve been this year is something that we’re very proud of.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE DRIVERS KNOW WHERE THE LINE IS WITH NASCAR BOTH ON AND OFF THE RACE TRACK IN EVERY INSTANCE?: “I feel like I’m pretty clear on where the line is. I know where the line is if I do something or I say something that it’s probably going to get me in trouble or it’s something that shouldn’t have been done. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know that I’m getting fined. For me personally, I know where the line is for me stepping over the boundaries of things that are detrimental to the sport whether it be from something I might express my opinion on that is border line or maybe crossing over the line as well as on the race track when I’m racing with somebody of what’s intentional and meant to spin that guy out and put him in the wall and what’s hard racing. There are accidents that happen and I can sit there and talk to the driver -- I don’t focus on how NASCAR’s going to react, I focus on how it affects my relationship with the other driver on the track and what happened and what that might create in the future for me and that driver. I feel like I’m pretty clear where that line is and then if it’s off the track and it’s in an interview or expressing my opinion or whatever -- I feel pretty clear about that too. If I say something, I usually just walk away and say to Jon Edwards (PR), ‘That one might get me in trouble.’ I’m not saying that I’m NASCAR and I know that its clear cut as to what they’re going to do.”
DO YOU THINK THERE ARE TEAM ORDERS IN RACES AND DO YOU THINK IT COULD IMPACT THIS CHAMPIONSHIP?: “I think it’s always -- alliances are always important whether it’s a teammate or a relationship you have with another team or it could be your buddy. You might have a good friend out there that might give you the spot because it’s going to win you the championship. It doesn’t have to be team orders. It just could be relationships. Those relationships are very broad. I think that’s always been the case. It’s not just something that’s come up recently. We do have different alliances these days because of the way the engines are being built and rented out to other teams and chassis’ and engineering so that might cross a lot more teams than it used to. I would think that you hope those don’t come into affect here on Sunday, but they certainly could.”
WHAT DO YOU LEARN IN CLOSE CHAMPIONSHIP RACES WHEN YOU DON’T WIN THAT HELP YOU THE FOLLOWING YEAR OR YEARS?: “I go back to Jimmie Johnson -- I said this with those guys before they won the championship that they were so strong, they came up short a couple times and I said watch out, when these guys win the championship they are going to go on a tear. If you keep coming up short, then eventually it affects you in a negative way. If you come up short a couple of times and then you get the win -- that team is going to create and gain incredible momentum and be a real force to reckon with in the future. I think this championship weekend is going to teeter on that. I think that with Carl (Edwards) being so close and so strong the last few years, coming to the track that he kind of owns in a way -- if they don’t pull it off this weekend, I think it’s going to impact them in more of a negative way than a positive way. Yet they pull it off and win it -- look for them to just be even stronger next year. I think it’s interesting that we’re sitting here talking about Tony Stewart because so many of us are just shocked at the fact that he’s in this thing, he’s won four races and I don’t know if Tony’s as shocked as we are, but it’s just something that nobody saw coming, but yet Tony’s a two-time champion and you never count him out. He’s a great driver and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and him have just hit on some things that have clicked so well so you know and they’ve shown it the last several weeks -- they are going to put up a heck of a fight no matter what the stats are, no matter what the past is and no matter what happened last weekend. It’s going to be interesting to see it unfold.”
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT THAT FINISHING SECOND IS OKAY AND DO YOU BELIEVE THAT TONY STEWART HAS NOTHING TO LOSE SEEING THE WORST HE CAN FINISH IS SECOND?: “No. At the end of the day, especially coming into the Chase when he was basically saying that they don’t belong in the Chase to finish the season off second is something they’d be very happy with, but at the same time they’re competitors like all competitors, when you have that victory within your grasp, you’re going to go for it and you’re going to be hungry for it. I think that you’re going to know that those guys are going to be hungry. They’re going to have to be because I really believe that Carl’s going to run well enough -- if they don’t have problems, he’s going to run well enough to be a real factor for this race for the win and put the pressure back onto Tony. It’s pretty easy for Tony to sit there and say, ‘Listen, there is no pressure because we have nothing to lose.’ They are already far ahead of what they anticipated and Tony knows what it’s like to win a championship. I think it’s what makes this a great battle. You’ve got two guys that are friends, but yet on the track they are going to do what it takes. Nobody expected Tony to be in it and Carl has been strong all year long. With as good as Tony has run, especially at Texas, it makes this one very difficult to really predict.”
HAVE YOU EVER RECEIVED A SECRET FINE FROM NASCAR?: “I gave them a secret fine after Texas because I sent them a bill.”
CAN YOU ASSESS THE CHANGES AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS ONE YEAR LATER AND DO YOU EXPECT TO SEE OTHER CHANGES COMING DOWN THE PIPE ON TUESDAY?: “I am a race car driver so my attention span is short. No, I have not ever received a secret fine. I don’t know why we’re calling them secret fines because if people know about them then they’re not a secret. I can promise you there is not one that exists with me. As far as I know, nothing is planned at this moment, but just like last year things could change.”
HOW DO YOU SIZE UP THE BATTLE BETWEEN TONY STEWART AND CARL EDWARDS?: “That’s why I say this is unpredictable and why I think it’s such an exciting battle here because it would be easy to say that Carl’s got the edge, this is his track, the Roush cars have been so strong at the mile-and-a-half tracks, he has a three point advantage. To me, Tony has just taken it to them. I don’t know what happened there at the end of the race last week, but Carl kind of got the edge on him right at the end, but Tony had it for a good part of the race, led the most laps and he did everything you needed to do and he’s going to have to do that again this weekend, but why shouldn’t he? He’s been doing it the last several weeks. It’s really hard to say who’s got the advantage. I would lean a little bit more towards Carl, but I’m pulling for Tony. I think that he’s a two-time champion, he’s a guy that when he sets his mind on something, watch out. He can do amazing things. Plus I want to see a Chevy win.”
CAN YOU PUT JIMMIE JOHNSON’S FIVE YEAR RUN INTO PERSPECTIVE?: “It’s incredible. I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever see again happen. You look at the history in this sport and you look at other sports and it’s just something that is so rare. Again, I go back to when those guys had not won the championship, but they were just knocking on the door and they were really strong, they had come so close and I just knew that if they got the taste of what it’s like to get that first one that they are going to go on a heck of a run and boy, what a run it’s been. The third time you’re like, ‘Wow, three in a row, that’s amazing.’ Then they go do four and just the odds seem to so far against them to win five, but yet they did it. I think that it’s an absolutely incredible feat. They made it look easy, but I know it wasn’t from being inside and knowing Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief). Those guys work so hard at it and it just to me goes back to showing that when you have a team that has chemistry and that is on the same page and wants the same things and is willing to put in the effort and has the right people all working together to achieve the same goal that anything is possible. We talked about it and we see it when it happens and it looks so amazing, but to try to orchestrate that and pull that all together and go out there and pick this person and do this with the car -- it’s just not that easy and yet they made it look easy. I think this is going to be the year that they learn a lot from what it is like to not win it and show just how good they are to come together and go back out there and get it again.”
DO YOU THINK THIS SEASON WILL BE REMEMBERED BY SUCH A CLOSE CHAMPIONSHIP?: “Yeah, I mean I certainly think it has given you guys a lot to talk about, which is always good for the sport. I can tell you that all those things are racing through those guys minds too as much as they might deny it. That’s putting a lot of pressure on them and creating a lot of tension. It’s going to make for a really dramatic race if those guys stay in contention and battle the way they have the last couple weeks because every position truly is going to matter. It’s actually going to make it a little nerve-wracking for us other competitors out there because we don’t want to screw that up either. As much as we want to win the race and do what we have to do for our team and our sponsors, we also don’t want to be remembered as the one that messed it up for one of those guys. You really want them to settle it themselves, but yet that’s also a part of our sport is dealing with the other 41 competitors out there on the track.”
IS THERE A DRIVER NOW THAT SPEAKS TO NASCAR ABOUT ISSUES AMONG DRIVERS AS A WHOLE?: “You’re assuming that when (Dale) Earnhardt went up there, they (NASCAR) listened. Sometimes they did. I was up there many times in those meetings when he was there and I remember they didn’t do much. He was passionate about the sport and they did respect him and the difference was he could pick up the phone and call Bill (France) Jr. if he really had something big. I think that one of the things that I look back on in those days and sometimes it’s something as simple as this -- we used to come in on Saturday, practice Saturday morning then they would have the Nationwide race and then we would practice in the afternoon. There’s a down time where you couldn’t leave the race track and Earnhardt would go up there and I did too, a lot of us, Rusty (Wallace), Earnhardt -- so many drivers went up into that hauler to just chat or get something off our chest because we had time. We had a whole race that was being run and we had to be around for practice at the end of the day. As much as I enjoy my off time that I have, I really enjoyed that practice session number one because rubbers on the track and it’s the most accurate conditions that we would usually have and I kind of enjoyed that time that I had to spend some quality time up there in the hauler chatting about things. It wasn’t always about going up there with a mission, sometimes it was just discussing some things that would create a hot topic. Others you did have a hot topic. I think everybody still -- they all get a chance to talk to Mike (Helton) and (John) Darby quite a bit about what’s going on -- on occasion we’ll talk to Brian (France). I think when drivers have something on their mind, they know where to go. It is a little bit different than it used to be.”
CAN YOU REFLECT ON YOUR FIRST SEASON WITH ALAN GUSTAFSON AND MOVING INTO 2012?: “Again, that goes back to the disappointment because I think Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) is just a rock star. This guy is so sharp. He’s really buttoned up and has a great group of engineers and the way he attacks a problem, I just have so much respect for him. When we struggled at Texas earlier in the year, he and his group of engineers just went after it and we made huge strides in our mile-and-a-half program. That’s why we had all that momentum coming into the Chase, it’s just disappointing because I feel like Alan is a guy that deserves a championship and deserves to be up there battling for one. He proved it with Mark (Martin) and I thought we were going to prove it this year with the way we were running leading into the Chase so it’s disappointing, but I’m hoping that next year now having a year under our belt and we get along well. I’ve got just a ton of respect and belief in him and I feel the same thing is in return that puts us in position to have a great year next year.”