An interview with Jeff Gordon
THE MODERATOR: We'll now welcome in our four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who drives the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. Jeff has six wins at Talladega, that's the most among active drivers.
Jeff, thanks for joining us today. How about talking about Talladega as it kicks off the second half of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Just the drama and excitement that can unfold at Talladega I think makes things very interesting for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you, great to be on.
You know, Talladega I think is in the perfect place in the Chase. It's one of those wild card races, because of the drafting, you always hear about the big one. Just the drama and excitement that can unfold at Talladega I think makes things very interesting for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Whether you're one of those top-five guys and you're looking at how you're going to plan out your race, who you're going to team up with to do drafting, to draft throughout the day, or whether you're going to be conservative and hang back, versus the guys that are a little bit further back that basically have to take more chances and work their way up to the front and go for it, as well as guys outside of the Chase. Those guys have a lot on the line trying to win races, which is a great opportunity at Talladega for somebody new to win or somebody that you wouldn't typically expect to win at maybe one of the other tracks.
It's certainly been a hot topic for us at HMS today talking about our plan. That plan is going to change a little bit on Friday once we get into practice to see what the new restrictor plate, the new water pressure relief valve, how that affects things, and how much pushing we're going to be able to do, whether we're going to have to swap more than we've seen in the past.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions for Jeff Gordon.
Q. Jeff, what do you think of the proposal to rename part of Interstate 85 as the Jeff Gordon Expressway?
JEFF GORDON: That's very exciting. I just found out about that. I thank NASCAR for sort of getting that ball rolling. We'll see how the vote goes.
Getting my 85th win this season, being third on the all-time list is an incredible accomplishment for me, something I'm so honored to be on that list behind Petty and Pearson. I drive up and down 85 all the time going to Hendrick Motorsports and to my house, my parents that also live in North Carolina. That would be a tremendous honor to be recognized in that way on Interstate 85.
Q. There's been a lot of comments from drivers around the world after what happened in Las Vegas. Jimmie Johnson yesterday said he didn't think IndyCars should race on ovals anymore. What is your reaction to that and what sort of suggestions might you have for that circuit to have more safety?
JEFF GORDON: Well, it's certainly something that I'm sure IndyCar is going to be looking at. Obviously under the current conditions, I wouldn't say that the cars are safe enough to race on those types of high-banked one-and-a-half-mile racetracks. We've seen some really tragic crashes happen on those types of racetracks.
Obviously, this one losing Dan Wheldon, is one that you'll hopefully make safety something that they look at in a different way. I think between the owners, the drivers in that series, you'll see some big changes coming.
What those changes will be, I'm not sure. Obviously, under the current conditions you can't climb a wheel at 200 plus miles per hour and get airborne and not expect there to be serious consequences.
It's still to me unbelievable that we lost Dan Wheldon, somebody I met, spent a little bit of time with. Great guy, great racecar driver, and will be sadly missed in the motorsports world. Hopefully, like we've seen in NASCAR in the past with tragedies like this, only positives can come from a safety standpoint in the future.
Q. When you're in the pack like that, you have to trust the people around you, how different is it when you may have drivers there who haven't been involved in that type of racing before? How much do you think that changes the safety aspect of it?
JEFF GORDON: Yes, but that's a part of motorsports.
I think the difference in this case is the open-wheel cars, the speeds they're traveling, the tight packs that they're in. We've seen stock cars, as well, years ago have to go to a restrictor plate to slow the cars down to keep them from getting airborne. That's the key, keeping the cars on the ground. An open-wheel car at that speed, it's difficult to do. I think between that and the catch fences for those types of cars, it's something that is seriously going to need to be looked at.
Q. Jeff, a lot of people talk about the speeds in pack racing. It's somewhat the same conversation you have when you talk about Talladega. How do you feel about the safety of your cars and the racing at Talladega, specifically about cars getting up in the air? Do you feel with the change from the wing to the spoiler last year, do you feel your cars are stable?
JEFF GORDON: I wouldn't compare an IndyCar at Las Vegas to Talladega with a stockcar. They're completely different, polar opposites. Looking at the aerodynamics, the weight of our cars, the fact that there are full fenders. I think NASCAR has implemented some incredible safety features for our cars over the years to allow us to go to Talladega.
While the drivers might not always be thrilled and sometimes the fans aren't always thrilled about the type of racing going on out there, I do feel very safe inside the cars. That's something that's evolved over the years and something that we all have worked together on through experience, through seeing wrecks, going through wrecks, understanding how to contain the cars inside the racetrack, trying to keep the cars on the ground with new aerodynamics, with the roof flaps.
I think the spoiler is a plus versus the wing when the cars get turned backwards. I feel very confident in that going to the racetrack this weekend at Talladega.
Q. As far as the racing at Talladega, when you do a swap, what is your biggest concern? Is it losing the spots you lose because you're slowing or are you more concerned just about kind of the potential for an accident with guys coming so quickly from behind?
JEFF GORDON: Well, there are a lot of things to be concerned about about swapping. To me I think that we get to focus a little bit more on what's going on ahead of us when we don't swap and we can just focus on trying to get the position, trying to get ourselves in position to win the race or get the best finish we can.
When you are also having to concern yourself with swapping to keep yourself from overheating, not only do you break the momentum, which is eight to ten miles per hour, so it's a huge speed drop when you do the swap, you're trying to do it quickly, get back connected, then not to mention the cars that have momentum that are coming, it's as if you lost 20 miles an hour because they're traveling 10 miles an hour faster than you at the time, then you lose speed, and it really shakes things up and causes some safety issues there.
I think especially late in the race when things intensify, you have bigger packs racing for position, racing for the win. Nobody wants to give an inch. The swapping can definitely be something that is concerning for us as competitors.
Q. Jeff, how big of a variable are the rule changes at Talladega? You are having meetings about it. We know who is drafting with who. Maybe it's better not to make a plan. How much adapting will everyone have to make or do you not know?
JEFF GORDON: Well, we don't know for sure. We have a pretty good idea of where our threshold is. But we'll know more when we get through the practice on Friday.
We meet every week on the previous race and planning ahead for the next race. You put the best plan that you possibly can in place prior to getting there. But all that can change, and we know that. There are a lot of variables.
We're certainly planning with the 24 team to go to Talladega and work with Mark Martin like we did the previous Talladega and Daytona race. We'll get through practice. We'll each push and see just how far out of line we have to get to keep air coming into the radiator, enough to keep the engine running cool, we don't have to swap.
You also have to understand, when you get into a pack, there's less air and there will be moments where we'll have to separate or maybe swap. We'll be playing around with that.
We already decided let's not put too stringent a plan in place now because we know there's some variables we can't control right now. We'll go Friday, get through practice, make a better plan from there.
Q. How do you look at it personally, like a Sudoku puzzle for a driver? It has to be fascinating, frustrating, I'm not sure which.
JEFF GORDON: Well, I like Sodoku, but I'm not as good at it as others (laughter).
We had a great race at Talladega the last time we were there. There's two different ways to look at it. I think at the end of the race, no matter what the rules that are implemented are at Talladega, it's going to be a three-, four-wide, hectic, intense, crazy finish at Talladega. It's always going to be that way.
I kind of like the fact that right now you don't have these really large packs through the middle part of the race because that's when a lot of mistakes are made and that's when a lot of accidents, the big one we always hear about, happens.
Now, what a driver likes and what a fan wants to see can be two different things. I like what Talladega Speedway has done in implementing the $100,000 bonus for lead changes. I think there's going to be some drivers and teams out there that are going to really push to lead a lot of laps and swap it up. There are also those that are going to still play by the same game and rules that we have in the past to try to win the race and put ourselves in the best position to be there at the end when it counts the most.
Q. Jeff, beyond your own teammates, what do you look for in a potential drafting partner at Talladega? How much sort of research and planning goes into that?
JEFF GORDON: Loyalty. I think when it comes to these two-car drafts that we've been seeing on the restrictor plate racetracks, you want somebody that's going to be there for you and you're going to be there for them. It's obviously best if they know how to, I guess, poke their nose out is the best term to use, to get air into the radiator, to prevent having to swap at all. You want somebody that's calm and experienced that you feel like can get you to the front or you can push to the front.
At the same time you have to be open, knowing that can change. That's why we put so many different radio channels into our radios now in case we lose the partner we go into the race with because, you know, a lot of things can happen to them and you have to be able to pick somebody else up.
Right now I think the biggest thing that's probably being preached to our team from Alan and myself and Rick Hendrick is, Hey, let's not get down.
The last thing you want to be is the odd man out. I'm not making any plans to set up anything with anybody other than Mark Martin. If something were to change there, we'll just work it out at the time to see who's available.
Q. All that said, once you get to the track, how choosy can you really be?
JEFF GORDON: Well, in the closing laps - and we saw this in Daytona - there was a late caution. Me and Mark got separated, had some issues. I spun. It was basically who I was lined up with in my line that was available. The way it worked out for me was Kyle Busch. I had Jimmie Johnson on the outside. We were trying to get together, but it didn't work out. They threw the green, our line moved, Kyle and I got hooked up and we were going to the front.
It can be a split-second decision that changes just like that and you've got to be prepared for that at any time.
Q. Jeff, with the points standings the way they look, are you having to kind of take a Yogi Berra 'It ain't over till it's over' approach to this and preach that to the team?
JEFF GORDON: I think our approach doesn't change this weekend versus any other weekend that we go into a race. We race to win. We race to do what we need to do to get ourselves in position throughout the race to win.
Right now I think the biggest thing that's probably being preached to our team from Alan and myself and Rick Hendrick is, Hey, let's not get down. Things haven't started the way we wanted them to. We still have a season to finish out, still have races to win. The points are just going to have to fall wherever they fall.
We're certainly in a different position than those top-five guys in points, the way they're approaching races right now, because they're looking at it as, Yes, we have to stay competitive and win but we can't falter, we can't be too risky because we have a championship to win.
We're kind of on the other side of that where we can take a little bit more risk, we can try some new things out, more talking about when we get to Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix. Talladega is a little bit different. Restrictor plate racing, you got to go with the plan that you put in place and really look at the races we've run previously. There's not a whole lot that we're going to change based on what we've done there in the past.
We're going to win. That's what we're telling our guys. That's what they know the plan is.
Q. Jeff, you talked earlier about how there can be safety issues with swapping, cars with speed differentials. With this aspect of this two-car draft style, there's that, also the car that's pushing that can't see. How does this style of racing compare to being in a big pack in regards to safety? You've also talked about the push and pull between what drivers want and what fans want. In what cases should it side with the drivers when it comes to those issues?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think there's pluses and minuses to both. I can remember being in the middle three-wide, four rows back, not being very comfortable, not thinking this is the best situation to be in, yet that's kind of where you're forced to be. As a racecar driver, as a competitor, you've got to put yourself in positions at times. It doesn't matter if it's you and one other car, you dive inside of them, you know you're going to get lose at Charlotte, at another racetrack.
You want to do more, all you can, to spread the word, create awareness, create more funding for causes like pediatric cancer.
You have to take risk. You try to make sure those risks are calculated. But on the spot, at the moment, sometimes it's a split-second decision, and it can work out to win you the race or it can cause you to lose the championship.
When it comes to Talladega, to me for the most part of the race, I think this two-car draft is actually a little bit safer than what we've had with the big packs and a little bit less stress. But when it comes down to winning the race with 20 or 25 to go, it is as intense as it can possibly get for a racecar driver inside of a car, especially if you're pushing. It's no fun to go through there somewhat blind. You have a spotter that's telling you what's going on.
But the cars are very safe. The track is very safe. I think that the drivers would definitely speak up louder if we felt like we were putting ourselves in the position that it wasn't safe to be out there on the racetrack. I think if that were to be the case, you would hear us. Yes, we're going to say, We don't like this, we don't like this. It's a whole 'nother level when you think you don't have the safest environment to be out there in.
At the same time we're racecar drivers, we're probably going to take a lot more risk than the everyday average person because of what we do and we recognize that.
Q. What does your charity work off the track mean to you?
JEFF GORDON: It means a lot to me. I'm very proud of looking back over all the years of the different charities we've supported, being able to eventually create the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation, which led us to starting the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital and all the other great work that we've been able to do. As a matter of fact, my sponsor, Drive to End Hunger, right now, I think because of that work we've done, they recognize that, and that's why they wanted to come in and be part of NASCAR, have me be their representative.
It's been very rewarding, something that you go through the days, you go to hospitals, you meet children, and it breaks your heart. You want to do more, all you can, to spread the word, create awareness, create more funding for causes like pediatric cancer. When it gets recognized beyond what I just do on the racetrack, it's even that much more rewarding.
I'm thrilled to hear about Interstate 85 possibly having a section with my name on it. I hope the vote goes well because it would only make all that work I've done that much more meaningful and rewarding.
Q. At Talladega you guys have had different packages where you've gone every year, whether it's one where you're in the middle of a 43-car traffic jam to the single file after it was repaved to what we have now with the two-by-two racing. Was there a particular package or era that you preferred over the other?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I would go back to the late '90s, '97, '98, '99, that aero package, that engine package. To me what I liked about it is it was challenging to make passes. You had to work with the cars behind you, work on a pass, get the momentum, make the pass. Hopefully you make it clean. You had to really protect that position.
Now it's so easy to pass, so easy to get passed, that you find yourself going through the paces, going through the shuffle. This is prior to the two-car draft. To me that was far more frustrating. I felt like it was completely out of your hands as a driver. It took a lot of skill away from it.
I would go back to the late '90s if I could pick any. Right now the two-car draft, again, it has its pluses and minuses. I have a great person to work with in Mark Martin. We were very successful the last couple races I felt like. I'm looking forward to working with him and having a shot at winning the race and putting on a great show for the fans.
Q. You mentioned earlier this is less stressful than what it was like before. Can you describe the differences. Before you were in the middle of a big pack of cars on your own, but now you have to rely on what you do and the split-second decisions your teammate makes.
JEFF GORDON: Again, there's certain aspects that are more stressful. Watching the gauges because the water temp, oil temp are very crucial, water pressure is very crucial, you have to keep your eye on that at all times or you'll blow the engine.
The other thing is when you have somebody pushing you, you can't make abrupt lane changes or movements with the steering wheel because you could be hooked from behind and spin yourself out. If you're behind that car, you're having to listen to your spotter as well as watch your gauges and just guide that car and follow that car wherever it goes.
There's definitely some stress that comes along with that.
What we saw in Daytona, which I thought was interesting, we saw cars in the middle of the pack, towards the back of the pack, using the tow and the draft off the larger pack and not necessarily having to push, but keeping air getting into the radiator, a little bit safer situation for the cars to be able to brake if something were to happen and move side to side without just being locked onto the other car.
We'll see if some of that happens or more of that happens in Talladega. But, you know, when you're two-by-two-by-two with a little bit of gap, you do have some room, especially at Talladega, to maneuver, to work your way through traffic. If you want to go to the front, you can go to the front. If you want to stay in the back, you can stay in the back.
When we were three-wide six rows deep, you were a passenger and you had no control over what was going to happen. You couldn't pass. You sometimes didn't even have the ability to go to the back. To me that was a situation I prefer not to be in far more than the two-car drafting that we have now.
Q. Jeff, I'm looking at the record at Talladega since 2007. There's been a different winner every race. Does that tell us anything, that this is completely a crapshoot?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it really does. And it is. I mean, we all look at it that way. You can work with the best driver and team out there to get hooked up together or find a drafting partner or whatever the rules are and the challenges are at Talladega, and you never know who is going to win that race, who will get that push at the right time in the closing laps and find their way to Victory Lane.
It is absolutely to me one of the most challenging places to win because any car really out there and driver combination can win this race. It's just about getting yourself in position, staying out of trouble, getting the push at the right time. That's usually on the last lap coming off of turn four to win that race. There's no reason why any driver and team out there can't get that done, which makes it interesting, exciting, and frustrating all at the same time.
Q. Do you think Talladega and Daytona are trying to get away from this tandem racing by the time you get back to Daytona next year?
JEFF GORDON: I'm not really sure. I'm trying to get the answers right now to the bigger restrictor plate. We're also not able to run any kind of lubricant on the front bumper or rear bumper of the cars. The pressure relief valve is smaller. I'm guessing that's a step trying to prevent the two-car drafting from happening. I can't really see any other reason why to take those things away.
Q. Jeff, over the past couple of weeks we've heard people complain or register issues about performance disadvantages from one make to the other, engine power, that sort of thing. Have you seen anything to indicate there might be any performance advantages or disadvantages from one brand to another?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I think everyone who designs an engine, every manufacturer, is going to design them slightly different. There's going to be positives and negatives to that design.
I think from a power standpoint, I think all the top teams and brands are pretty close to one another. Right now we see the Fords might have a little bit better cooling system, or they've been able to figure out the radiators a little bit better. But from a power standpoint, I feel like the Chevy teams are stacked right up there with the Fords.
I feel like the Gibbs Toyotas have been strong, the TRDs seem to have been off a little bit in the past. Interesting to see how that combination with TRD and Gibbs joining forces, to see if that picks up their power.
Earlier in the year I felt like the Dodges made some huge gains in power. But I think they might be a little bit off of us or very close to the Chevrolets and the Fords.
Other than some manufacturers of engines and certain teams, I would say they're pretty equal out there right now.
THE MODERATOR: Jeff, we appreciate all the time you've taken to answer these many questions today. We wish you the best of luck at Talladega on Sunday.
JEFF GORDON: All right. Thank you very much.